Groundswell Launches on the Space Coast[By: Felicia Solazzo]
The Space Coast boasts more engineering talent per capita than Silicon Valley or any other region in the United States. With this vast potential, how can we create more high tech jobs and strengthen the local economy?
The startup catalyst at Groundswell is working on the answers. Comprised of serial entrepreneurs who know how to build companies and tap into the southeast investment community, the nonprofit helps early-stage companies gain access to funding, resources and generate jobs.
“The investment community has been looking at the Space Coast as an untapped region for some time,” Jenna Buehler, CEO and co-founder of Groundswell said.
In the early summer of 2015, Buehler and co-founders Mark Mohler and John Vecchio brought entrepreneurs together at events. No suits and no ties were allowed at these events which drew talented artists and technologists together at Derek Gores Art Gallery each month. The result, Buehler said, was a very strategic campaign to “bring brilliant and diverse minds together to collaborate, build companies and grow jobs.”
Early traction and support from Derek Gores led to increased community exposure to serial entrepreneurs in the county. Following a talent matchmaking event at the gallery, Bud Deffebach joined the board in September last year and purchased a space for entrepreneurs to collaborate 24/7.
This support is essentially derived from the deep industry knowledge of Groundswell mentors. “At Groundswell, we have serial entrepreneurs that are from the Space Coast and believe in the talent here. They invest their time because they want to see this place grow. They want to make this a place that attracts talent and retains talent long term,” Buehler said.
The team and its growing network aim to strengthen the support infrastructure available to early stage entrepreneurs. “We’re looking to foster a culture of giving first in the startup ecosystem,” Buehler said. “Helping a startup before they have capital or customers does yield longer-term profitable gains. Either you get what it means to help the next Bill Gates or you don’t.”
A startup ecosystem requires a number of things to function properly. It needs mentorship, which we covered. But above all, it needs funding. “Groundswell is a nonprofit that connects companies to resources and capital. Groundswell does not take equity or ownership. Its mission is to develop a tradition of startup success and shared economic wins,” Buehler explained.
Of the investment capital that is available in the United States, only one percent goes to Florida. In order to build a strong startup ecosystem while offsetting the scarcity of local venture funding, access to mentorship is vital. “With the cost of living and lifestyle that is available on the Space Coast, we really feel we can grow successes that attract more investment dollars here.”
Groundswell is one of the available resources and is not designed to compete with the existing resources in the area. In order for a startup community to thrive, they need a steady pipeline to funding. “All of these existing entities on the Space Coast represent a part of that pipeline. It is when we collaborate with all these organizations that we can really be competitive on a national scale,” Buehler said.
Droplit was one of the first companies to benefit from the services of Groundswell. Droplit originally intended, and still plans, to launch “Droplit Home,” a platform that allows users to connect to their home from anywhere, anytime, with any device.
Droplit secured funding from four local “angels” and a venture capital firm – which would not have been possible without the help of Groundswell said Senior Vice President Preston Tesvich. Now the company has turned its focus to Droplit.io, a developer platform to control smart devices.
“It all centers on this notion in the Internet of Things, which is the idea that everything with a power switch is getting connected to the Internet,” Tesvich said. “It’s really hard to do all that stuff on the software level. We make the software moving parts between whatever the user is looking at, or the application, and whatever connected devices that application needs to be able to control and monitor.”
Buehler and Vecchio met with Droplit’s founder, Bryan Jenks in June of 2015. Droplit was anemic on the business side, so Tesvich jumped on board as co-founder. Vecchio introduced Jenks and Tesvich to his contacts across the industry, opening conversations for Droplit. “The Groundswell team essentially helped us evolve our business model to suit what the market needed. As a startup you’re banging your head against the wall trying to solve these problems. Once we were put in the right direction, it clicked,” Tesvich said.
Tesvich described Groundswell’s “no ask” approach as rare. “We’ve had a lot of people who ‘want to help,’ but they always want something in return, and they’re not up front about it. John was not at all like that. He purely wanted to help us succeed. Investors are really open to giving back, and most of them genuinely want to see founders succeed. Groundswell got us that funding we needed to make our vision a reality.”
Droplit is one of seven companies that Groundswell has helped receive funding on the Space Coast. Before Groundswell, Droplit was operating with four team members. Today, they have nine. “There’s been a solid doubling of our team size as a result of Groundswell and funding. The talent density here is really high,” Tesvich said. “In Melbourne, we can dilute ourselves less and get a lot more runway out of it.”
Tesvich said a company’s network counts for just about everything at its early stages. “It’s not what you know; it’s who you know. In Florida, there’s not a hugely strong network like the connection density that you have in the Valley, New York or Boston. As a young business, it is really important to get involved in the community, and that’s where Groundswell steps in.”