Some local residents, backed with some seed money, want to solve a continuous economic development issue in Sarasota: brain drain, in which students and young professionals leave town for better jobs and business opportunities elsewhere.
The latest salvo at the problem is BIG — Bright Ideas on the Gulf Coast. The project, funded by $100,000 from the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, is essentially a connector organization that aims to put people with ideas with people who can financially support those ideas. The ideas, said BIG Project Director Suzette Jones, can be for a business, a product or anything in between. Said Jones: “We want anyone with an idea who can solve a problem.”
Jones, who has started several businesses, including a franchise-based fitness center for executives, said her role is to then make sure the idea moves down the execution assembly line.
“We aren’t the funders,” Jones said. “We are the matchmakers who put people together. And no one around here does that.”
The project officially launched Sept. 18. But Mark Pritchett, senior vice president for community investment at the foundation, said the idea for the idea lab was actually hatched in late 2011. That’s when some foundation officials, along with Dean Eisner, a retired auto industry executive who lives on Longboat Key, batted around ideas about how to reverse the brain drain.
Eisner suggested modeling it based on The Launch Pad, a University of Miami-run program that offers entrepreneurial support. The group also studied other like-minded organizations, including Cleveland-based JumpStart. BIG, said Pritchett, is ultimately a combination of those concepts under an “entrepreneurial support ecosystem.”
“We want to build a collaboration of ideas,” said Pritchett. “But we don’t want to be an organization that tells people where to go and then forgets about them. We want to follow up.”
That’s where Jones fits in. Her role will be to connect people and follow through with the idea generators. The $100,000 from the Venice-based foundation, Pritchett said, will be used to pay Jones’ salary and for branding and marketing.
One challenge the project faces is to develop a separate identity from other local organizations with similar goals but different missions. That list includes the Greater Sarasota Chamber of Commerce; the Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County; the HuB, a business incubator; and several angel networks and business-accelerator funds. Foundation officials met with leaders at most of those organizations, said Pritchett, and no one wants a turf war.
“Our goal isn’t to duplicate what they do,” said Pritchett, “but to complement these groups.”