Downtown Gainesville paves the way for entrepreneurs

Gainesville’s old Firestone Tire & Rubber building used to outfit glossy Model T automobiles in the 1930s. Now it’s making history driving a new kind of engine: young startup companies.

Richard Miles and his wife, Phoebe, whose father invented Gatorade, restored the neglected landmark on 308 W. University Ave. and leased it to aspiring entrepreneurs.

Local tech professionals Quang Tran, Duncan Kabinu and Payal Khurana quickly converted the old brick building into a hybrid co-work/incubator venue, dubbed Starter Space.

Their mission? Build an inspiring, high-energy startup environment similar to that associated with Silicon Valley tech giants—but with an orange and blue twist.

“Our goal is to provide a catalyst for young entrepreneurs to succeed in Gainesville,” explains Tran, Starter Space co-founder. “It goes way beyond, hey, here’s how you build company. We don’t just talk about culture; we actively experiment with it. ”

They sparked an immediate reaction. Starter Space opened on Sept. 1 – and reached 100 percent occupancy four days later. The program currently fosters nine companies, tackling everything from coffee imports to 3-D printing. Nearly 40 people work or intern for startups in the building, according to Tran.

Starter Space caters to early-stage startups and bold 20-somethings. Tran said he wants to encourage college students and new grads to make an impact. “We believe that the average age group should be 25 years and under,” he comments. “We want fresh ideas. We need bigger thinkers.”

The personality ingrained in Firestone’s rich wooden floors and distinct brick architecture sets Starter Space apart from other programs. “We’re not cookie-cutter. The space is important, and the historic nature of the building is important,” Tran adds.

The Starter Space group plans to launch an accelerator version of the program in February 2014.

[symple_divider style=”dashed” margin_top=”20px” margin_bottom=”20px”]

The hybrid co-work/incubator Starter Space is geared toward young entrepreneurs.
The hybrid co-work/incubator Starter Space is geared toward young entrepreneurs.

The University of Florida is also paying attention to enterprising young minds. Just four blocks down the street from Starter Space, UF plans to break ground on a residence hall that will double as a business incubator for 260 undergraduate students. The building will be the first housing development in the U.S. to be designed from the ground up as an entrepreneurial incubator, cites Ed Poppell, director of economic development for the UF Development Corp. project.

The new dorm-incubator will be nestled inside Innovation Square—the master planned, 40-acre live-work-play community that connects UF to downtown Gainesville. Typical universities would prohibit a business growing out of a dorm room, said Poppell. But UF already helps graduate students and faculty form technology spin-offs, so offering startup support for ambitious undergraduates seemed only natural.

“The impetus for doing this is the number of high school students coming to UF with intellectual property,” Poppell says. “We’re trying to support the entrepreneurial attitude of this generation and our students.”

Construction will begin in March. Applying to live and work in the hall will be a competitive process. Students will be required to make progress on their business plan development. But, notes Poppell, the university has a forward-thinking definition of success: Some students might make major mistakes as freshman but then create a profitable business two or three years down the road. Or, they may end up playing a crucial role in a startup incubating at the neighboring Florida Innovation Hub, he said.

“Sometimes the third time’s the charm,” he says. “Entrepreneurs must fail to succeed.”