Richard Munassi is a prominent figure in Tampa, involved in a bunch of really cool projects, including the Tampa Bay WaVE TechDiversity Cohort, SpaceCom, SXSW, and so many more.
He came down to the Full Stack Talent office and we talked about tech, Tampa, SPACE(!!!), and many other things.
Roxanne Williams: Can you tell us a little bit about the tech diversity cohort?
Richard Munassi: Sure thing. It’s a program that the Tampa Bay WaVE runs, one of our two cohorts per year. Actually, I’ll go backwards. Tampa Bay WaVE does two cohorts per year with 8 to 12 startups per cohort. We get hundreds of applications. We have to really whittle it down to the best companies that are tech-specific that we know we can accelerate in their 90 days within our program. TechDiversity was borne out of the idea that we don’t see a lot of diversity in tech. It’s a really hot button topic, it’s something that we’ve recognized for a couple of years is an issue, and as an organization, we actually trend regardless – even before the tech diversity cohort got off the ground. With our previous cohort, out of the 13 companies that were initially accepted, I believe it was 11 that fell under the diversity umbrella of women-owned, minority-owned, LBGTQ-owned, or veteran-owned This initiative is something that is very close to our founder, Linda Olson, as she’s represented under that umbrella as well.
Initial talks happened with Nielsen about two years ago. They were looking to do something around tech diversity themselves. We happened to have someone, Ned Pope, who is active with Nielsen. He got wind of what they were trying to do on the foundation side. They said, “Hey, look, we have Tampa Bay WaVE here. This would be a great partnership to get this off the ground.” It took us a little bit of time but from then, it’s been a smash hit. Nielsen has really given us a lot. They have brought us down to the Oldsmar location multiple times, they’ve engaged our startups with their executive team and people from all over the globe, really, from Nielsen. They’ve engaged with the companies that are part of the TechDiversity program. So, it’s been a win-win both ways.
Roxanne: I think I recall seeing an article a while ago where Nielsen had donated a large, six-figure grant or something similar.
Richard: It was six-figures for the first grant and that has already been reupped for next cycle, and applications for the next TechDiversity cohort open January 1st. [Edited to add: We did look it up, and the cohort lasts from May 14th to September 14th – apply here!]
Matt Vaughn: Okay. And with that, I know there are a lot of entrepreneurs-in-residence like yourself and Steven Fiske and the long roster of local leaders trying to help out. Is Nielsen the first instance of your entire company backing the way you’ve been trying to push those people forward?
Richard: It is the first branded program that we’ve done so far, but it’s something that we want to continue to do. I’m trying to work with some of the local healthcare leaders as well, but Nielsen is our first step into that. We’ve seen other community based accelerator programs do stuff similarly where they get branded with a large corporation – for example, I believe Ford does one out of Detroit, Michigan. I know that Stanley also does one out of Techstars in Hartford, Connecticut. You should look it up. It’s actually a good example because they recently got off the ground, and they’re around manufacturing, so you see these pairings of corporate and accelerator programs all over the country. But  was our first run and typically, as a non-profit accelerator, we are a niche of a niche of a niche. For non-profit accelerators to get linked up with the corporate is very, very rare. It’s tough to do.
Roxanne: I can imagine.
Matt: And from that, for the people that aren’t big friends of the Tampa Bay WaVE like we are, how does that work with you guys being a non-profit? How do you provide everything that you provide to these companies without having some kind of financial incentive and/or equity that comes out, like a lot of the accelerators do?
Richard: A lot of the people that come through the Tampa Bay WaVE, it’s altruism at the end of the day. We talked earlier about entrepreneurs-in-residence. We have two new entrepreneurs-in-residence, one sold his company for over $150 million, one sold his for over $400 million. And these are guys that have done it a couple of times. Tony DiBenedetto of Tribridge and then also Steven MacDonald of myMatrixx. These are just the type of people that walk through Tampa Bay WaVE’s doors every single day. We have, in our mentor network, one of the first inventors of the smart watch, period. Not the Apple Watch, the actual first smart watch. There are a lot of people that want to just give back that are involved in tech, and want to get involved with the tech community locally. There’s a lot of movement. You can really see where things are at the ground floor before things are on a rapid ascent thanks to Jeff Vinik, Linda Olson, and Marc Blumenthal. The list kind of goes on and on with local thought leaders.
Matt: Yeah. That’s one of the things that, when I first started to get to know Steven Fiske, I found interesting – because I mean, a Mark Cuban-backed Shark Tank company founding partner, heard about the community and things going on here in Tampa, and wanted to get involved in.
Richard: Tampa’s a really unique environment with the collaboration that occurs here. I’ve done startup stuff in LA, Houston, a couple of other places in the country too, and there’s nothing like Tampa. It’s a small community. Everybody plays nice together for the most part, and the politics are pretty minimized because everyone is really trying to drive towards one goal, and that’s the community increasing its presence on a national level.
Matt: Yeah, it’s a big small town and people aren’t using that to try and get as much for themselves, they’re sharing with the rest.
Richard: Exactly. And going back to answer your question about Tampa Bay WaVE and how we do it, our budget is tighter than other programs. We run off of grants from the federal and state level, and also corporate sponsorships. You think about the entrepreneurs-in-residence, mentors provide their time for nothing. It’s about community building and being able to give back. Luckily, I’m in a position where I can do it right now. Steve is in a position where he can do it. Lance is in a position where he can do it – the list goes on and on. But without that, there’s no way a business like Tampa Bay WaVE survives without the great people that are involved.
Matt: Before we get more into the Tampa Bay area and tech and more of what you’re doing with the cohorts, give us the highlight reel of you: where you came from, your experiences out west, where you got your start, how you got here.
Richard: I’m going to give you the short form answer. I’m an MD/MBA, did medical school, did business school. Initially got involved with the international non-profit getting it off the ground. We had some fantastic people around us, some great support from government on this side and then across the pond as well.
Shortly after, a close friend of mine pulled me into the startup world. I didn’t even know what a startup was, but I said, “Sure. Love to get involved, love to help out.” It was a good fit, and it was successful. From there, had the opportunity to get involved with a few others in biotech, medical education software, medical diagnostic software, and then travel as well.
I had fallen in love with Tampa about 12 years ago when I would come down from Atlanta to visit friends. I really saw that there was something here in Tampa that you don’t find in other cities. The people are fantastic, the weather’s great, the beaches are top in the world. Low key, Tampa’s a great food city as well. And I said, “If the opportunity ever comes up, I want to get a place here.” The opportunity came up about four and a half years ago or so. I was heavily in Houston at the time, so I would just fly in when I had short periods of free time.
Matt: Fly back out.
Richard: And that was it. I had no inclinations on doing anything here in Tampa whatsoever with regards to tech.
I started probing to see what’s happening in the tech environment here locally to see if there was any value in me being here, and I ended up getting involved with the Tampa Bay WaVE. I really believe in all the things that Tampa Bay WaVE is doing here for the community, and I really believe in the community itself and I thought, “Well, I’ll stick around and I’ll see what I can do to help.”
Roxanne: That’s great. Tampa is lucky to have you. Do you believe that Tampa Bay is doing better in terms of qualified tech talent?
Richard: That answer is yes. I think people are moving here every single day. Unfortunately, it’s not moving at the rate that I think it could move. I think that we might be bringing in people that are very talented, but we’re not holding onto enough talent coming out of USF. Florida Poly’s up the road, UT, University of Florida. There are these great institutions around academia that are all within an hour and a half drive any way you go. So I think that if I had to pinpoint one thing that I wish was better, it would be corralling those engineers as they’re getting out of school, and showing them that they can really build something here. Now that we have the infrastructure, it’s only going to get better.
Matt: How do you think you get that point across from your experience in the Houston/Atlanta/California area, what are they doing that we’re not doing that’s allowing them to retain talent?
Richard: I think that there just needs to be more open collaboration, open door policy, and maybe more engagement as well from the community to pull students out and let them know what’s available. I see good things happening with Tech Data and Jabil, for example.
You don’t have to go to Silicon Valley to start a tech startup anymore. You don’t have to go to Austin or New York or Boston, you can start it wherever you want, and hopefully, students in particular will see with the opening of Embarc Collective and the Water Street project, that there’s not just the opportunity for someone to start something here, there’s a whole community that’s very welcoming and that wants to see them learn here, stay here, grow here, and we can turn this into the next Austin or Seattle or Silicon Valley or LA.
Roxanne: From the information that I’ve gleaned from prior interviews, they pinpoint it to two things. Number one would be salaries – we’re lagging behind, no use dancing around it. The second one would be, it’s really, really hard to compete. I guess it kind of falls into salaries as well. It’s just hard to compete when you have companies from New York that pull remote workers in now. So, you can live in Tampa and appreciate the low cost of living and every great thing that Tampa has to offer, and then you can work remotely for a company in New York that’ll pay you a New York salary. What do you think would be some good things we can do to kind of even up the playing field? Because remote work, from what I’ve seen here, is still not the norm whatsoever.
Richard: I have a friend who works for Accenture. She worked remote and she hated every day of her life because she sat in her beautiful apartment in Hyde Park with her dog and her human communication each day was basically non-existent, or it was when she walked down to get a cup of coffee and that was it. So, remote work is great but I don’t think it’s all it’s cracked up to be. But that being said, it is of a high value for a lot of people.
What can we do as a community to get people rallied around the opportunities here? Just being more visible to those opportunities. There is going to be a skills gap as Tampa fills out with stronger tech, but what is the draw versus in NYC or in LA? The truth of the matter is NYC and LA are just more established and stronger places to live, right? From a dollar perspective, it’s a lot more value there. From a networking perspective, all of those things, those are stronger communities. We’re trying to play catch-up to those people. What are the things that are of value? Well, Tampa’s got low cost of living. It has a great community. You have to really sell it on those other things because there’s still a gap. We’re behind the other cities.
Matt: To tie kind of into that, what do you hope to see in the next few years when it comes to Tampa Bay in tech?
Richard: Well first and foremost, I want to see what Jeff Vinik and Lakshmi Shenoy and the Embarc Collective team have been building, to see it open up.. I love the idea of Water Street. Number two, I want to see how our current Tampa Bay WaVE companies, the companies that have been growing here in the community, continue to grow. Where they’re going and what they end up being. I’d love to see how USF will continue to grow. I want to say that the new staff, the new executives there, really engage with the community. The opportunities are there to really aggressively push collaboration between academia and then the commercial side of things. Oh, and hopefully better public transportation. I forgot about that.
Matt: What are your thoughts on what we should do? Do you think more ferries, add more lanes?
Richard: Fairies with pixie dust so everybody can fly around would be awesome. As far as public transportation goes, I wish I knew. In LA, we don’t have good public transportation.
Matt: Going a mile on the highway taking two hours.
Richard: I know. We had the Red Car, and then from what I understand, the auto company bought it out and destroyed it to make LA a driving city. But I think there is opportunity here. Tampa, at its core, the leadership – everybody involved from a political perspective recognizes that it’s an issue and really wants to solve it. Tech is being embraced locally at a rate and at a level that I haven’t really seen in other cities. There is buy-in from the ground all the way up. So, if there’s anybody that’s going to figure a way out to do it, I think it’s the people that are empowered here, they’ll figure it out, and I have faith in them to do it.
Matt: Another trending thing we tend to hear when it comes to things that could be changed is where the money’s coming from. There is an enormous amount of money here in the greater Tampa Bay area but it only goes to hospitality or real estate. What steps do you think could be taken to try and usher a little bit of that to look outside of what is the ‘tried and true’ of the area for years?
Richard: Really the volume of accredited investors, Florida comes in second only to California. That’s it. But when you look at the types of accredited investors that are in Florida, they’ve made their money in franchising, they’ve made their money in real estate, they’ve made their money in hospitality. It’s non-tech verticals. Whereas in California, the majority of the volume is tech. So, as a result, what do people typically gravitate towards? It’s what they know. To really change an ecosystem from an investor perspective, we need to have more wins for the ecosystem. There can be outside capital that comes in in the form of VC or from angel investors and other areas but the odds of them coming in here, investing in a company, and then not taking that company to wherever they’re from, is minimal at best. If I’m an investor and I want to put a million dollars into a company, I want that company close to me so I can watch them and make sure that million dollars is actually getting to work. I want to introduce them to my network. I want to accelerate them based on the relationships that I have, and mostly likely, that will not happen from someone coming from DC and then coming down to Tampa. It just doesn’t work like that.
In order to really get the investor community thriving here, we need to create people that are tech investors. How does that happen? It happens with exits, it happens with people understanding the model, having the relationships to really say, “Hey, I know if I go to this company and I give them a million dollars, then I connect them to these 4 or 5 people, my million dollars is going to turn into $5 million.” It’s not rocket science, but Florida just has a certain track record with a certain type of investor – but that doesn’t mean it can’t change. And I think that it definitely will change, it’s only a matter of time. You’re looking at the things that are on the horizon. I think we’re going to see things shift pretty quickly.
Matt: Do you think it’s ludicrous to speak with those investors about targeting technology companies involved with real estate or involved with hospitality?
Richard: Yeah, that’s a great bridge. I think that’s a really, really good bridge.
Matt: And then moving from here and/or farming one here or whatever.
Richard: Yeah, absolutely. If you think about it, how do you even get non-tech investors to try something out? Either it has to be incredibly stimulating from a visual perspective, financial perspective, something that’s going to pique their interest, or has to have some sort of tangential relationship to what they already know. We have a couple of companies in Tampa Bay WaVE that are coming from real estate tech that have done pretty well for themselves, especially with finding investors in the south east, and it’s because they have their footprint in that real estate side of things too.
Richard: Space, good old space.
Roxanne: What are your thoughts on SpaceX and Elon?
Richard: I’m a big fan of Elon Musk. I think that he is really groundbreaking. Everybody has ideas of what they want for the future, everyone has ideas of how they want to fix a problem. You see every startup say, “My company’s going to change the world.” But he’s out there actually doing it. He’s executing on that and he’s done it by putting himself right in the crosshairs – he’s put up his own money to back his startups. Tesla was about to go under and he put in essentially the remainder of his capital from when they sold PayPal into Tesla just to make sure it got off the ground, and he could have failed and that would’ve been that. So, the thing I like about Elon is that when push comes to shove, he’s there, he’s putting up his own money, he’s on the floor, he’s sleeping under a desk, he’s putting in those hours and he is all in. With regards to space, I read something the other day that said getting out to space and going out to other areas and being physically present there will increase our knowledge of the areas 10,000 fold versus a rover or a robot. I think it’s inevitable that we get out there, but the amount that we’ve done as humanity in a small period of time, if you really think about it, is insane. If you just think about from where we were then (the Wright brothers) to where we are now, the leaps from that and then getting over to the moon and then now where not only is Mars something that we think we can do, we’re out there making decisions right now for a 2030 or whatever journey to Mars. NASA has it mapped out. When you think about things like that, it’s pretty awesome. I’m a big fan of all that. And SpaceX, it’s pioneering. They’re really cutting down the cost of space travel and cargo carrying. I think they were saying at one point they were going to get it down to $100 per pound to get up into space, and it’s something like $10,000 per pound right now. Don’t quote me on those numbers but if you look them up, you can find them. But he’s rapidly getting there, and how do you do that? You have reusable rockets. They’ve already cracked that nut, and that’s awesome.
Roxanne: You’re involved with some really cool stuff: SpaceCom, NASA, and the National Science Foundation, to name a few. Would you like to take some time to take us through the initiatives you support? What’s your involvement with all of those? I saw on your LinkedIn that you were a judge at some of them.
Richard: Yeah, I got really lucky. I got invited to judge with NASA’s iTech program, and their entire goal is to identify commercial technologies that are not part of the space program and seeing how they can find technologies that can be brought into the space program to impact the 2030 trip to Mars, trips to the moon – anything that they can do to help make space travel easier, faster, and cheaper. And it’s an incredible program.
I was happy to help out in any way that I could. I have a big passion for space and I think that as Americans, it’s in our DNA and in our blood to want to go out there. We want to conquer it and we’re going to.
SpaceCom involves NASA, it involves all sorts of things and different universities, different corporations – Lockheed Martin had a big footprint there, Boeing, the list kind of goes on and on, and it’s really bringing together the business of space. That was very fascinating to me. It’s only been around for a couple of years but, again, leaps and bounds – just like tech is exponentially growing, you can really see momentum building behind technology and everything space throughout the country.
Matt: Very cool. You kind of spoke about this in the quick rundown of your career, but what spurred the change to go from medicine to business and technology?
Richard: At the core of it, I went into healthcare to help people out, period. My whole family’s in healthcare; my dad’s been a physical therapist for 40 years, still practices today and he’s going to be 70 pretty soon. My mom was a nurse for decades and then she transitioned into an executive role with Kaiser Permanente on the west coast. My older brother’s an ER doctor, younger brother’s a fourth-year medical student, cousins, everybody’s in healthcare, everybody. I went into it for a specific reason: I wanted to impact as many lives as possible, and going into the tech side of things, the volume of lives you can impact is significant, versus the amount of patients you can see per day. At a macro level it just makes perfect sense and I’ve gotten lucky, getting to know the right people and being in the right places at the right time to justify that decision. But it’s something where I thought the opportunity was there and went full go at it and it has worked out pretty well.
Matt: Yeah, and by all means, no offence to your career-long therapist father, but to kind of echo what you’re saying with that, he only has so many patients he can see per day, but look at Verapy. What they’re doing with therapy can affect physical therapy as a whole in offices globally.
Richard: Yeah, absolutely, and that’s the advantage of tech. Tech is rapidly scalable, all it needs is a wifi connection or an ethernet connection and you’re off to the races. So, healthcare as a vertical is 10 years behind being 10 years behind. It’s just one of those things where, for the people that are decision makers, there’s so much risk involved and they want to be so careful and they really want to make sure that the patient population is being well served, and unfortunately, sometimes that stymies innovative technologies. It bottlenecks it. But just here in Tampa, you look at a Craig Anderson over at BayCare, you look at Scott Arnold over at TGH, these are thought leaders that really care about innovation and that are looking to make changes for the same reasons that I went into this. They want to impact the patient population as a whole and really be able to service the booming population, especially the elder population in Florida. 12,000 people turn 65 every single day in America, and that’s not going to change for the next 17 years or something like that. The amount of physicians, nurses, and ancillary staff, they’re not growing the same proportion.
Tech really has to end up being that stopgap in between. I think the innovative thought leaders are seeing that and really trying to drive change.
Roxanne: This is good. What are you the most excited about when it comes to the Tampa community?
Richard: Outside of what we touched base on earlier, I’m definitely excited about Synapse coming up on January 23rd and 24th, and all of the companies that are going to be involved. Everybody from Deloitte, Uber, Tesla – the list kind of goes on and on, and we’re expecting over 300 startups to exhibit from all over the state of Florida. So, it’s a tough question to answer but I guess the short answer is everything.
Roxanne: Awesome. So, we kind of bridged this topic when you were talking about the schools but we don’t really get the opinion from what the students themselves can do. Is there something that college graduates can do to be able to find a career in Tampa? Because we’ve noticed that a lot, we have college students reaching out us like, “Hey, I can’t seem to find a job here because nobody wants to give me that chance,” but they don’t have that 2 to 4 years of precious experience. What can they do to really put themselves out there?
Richard: I saw a post somewhere that said they went to apply for a job and they were told they needed 3 to 5 years of experience programming in the language but the language had only existed for 18 months. So, we’re kind of at this weird crossroads where everyone wants to squeeze every drop of blood out of every rock, unfortunately, and the millennials are really paying a price for it. What can they do to offset it? If I had that answer, I’d be president.
The best advice I can probably give them is this: don’t waste time, get out there, intern, volunteer, do whatever you need to do. When I think about business, half of it is just showing up – so show up, do the networking, do the things other people don’t want to do. You can’t put your head down in the books for four years and then expect to transition out to a job that is going to be rewarding and valuable. The world has changed, it doesn’t work like that anymore, and it’s really too bad because college is a major investment of time and capital and I wish it was different, but it’s not.
You have to deal with the cards that are dealt to you, and in order to maximize your opportunities, it’s really about getting out there and meeting the right people and doing what you need to do to separate yourself from the pack. I wish there was more I could do, if there’s anything I could do to help, please give them my email address, I will do my best to try to plug in whoever I can, but it’s a tough time right now. Here in Tampa, there are companies that are growing and that offer internships. Michael Hamilton is a part of Frank Crum here locally, great guy, I highly recommend you speak to him, he’s really trying to do a lot for the students coming out of the college and setting them up, but you have to be active, you cannot be passive. Times demand that.
Roxanne: Yeah, I posted Jeff Fudge a couple weeks ago, and his answer to that question was it’s in the meetup groups, pretty much. So many connections. If you’re a PHP coder, go to the PHP meetups, that kind of thing. You can make some invaluable connections that way.
Richard: It’s tough. I went to UC San Diego out in California and it’s a coding-heavy school – we had a lot of computer science grads. My fraternity was almost exclusively computer science grads. And it’s hard because these guys, I feel for them, to do coding and to be involved in the tech sector, it’s a lot of afterhours work, it’s not just classroom work. The days are limited. But it’s that actual little bit of time a week, if you can dedicate 3 to 4 hours a week that you go, “Hey, I’m going to go out and network, I’m going to go and do Google searches.” Whatever it is, really lock it down at the end of your 4 years of college. It’s going to make a big difference.
Matt: Who’s a person and/or an organization that you think is doing something right and innovative in the area outside of the Tampa Bay WaVE and why?
Richard: I can only choose one?
Matt: You can shout out as many people as you want.
Richard: Well I think things start at the top, right? You have to have people driving from the top down as well as from the bottom up in order to really foster change. So, I would really say Mayor Bob Buckhorn is someone that has fully embraced tech. He’s done all he can to push initiatives in tech here locally and he has been a fantastic champion for tech in the City of Tampa. Hats off to him. I know he’s wrapping up his mayoral term, but seriously, hats off to him and his entire team and staff for everything they’ve done for the community and really bringing together business leaders to recognize that Tampa’s a tech city. Every city is a tech city right now but Tampa’s really embracing it and I think that he’s a critical driver to all this.
Matt: Yeah, saying it and doing it are two very different things.
Matt: Cleveland, where I come from, for a long time was just saying it for the most part.
Richard: Well Jumpstart’s done a good job out of there. I’ve got to give them hats off.
Matt: There are some people doing cool things and a lot of that is since I moved to Tampa. A handful of companies are retaining the university talent and innovating in tech, but the economy was medical and LeBron for a while.
Richard: That’s true.
Matt: We lost the manufacturing roots and our sports are a rollercoaster. So, yeah, thankfully the city started to put a big focus on tech.
Richard: Cleveland’s coming back. I love Cleveland.
Matt: I’ve got a lot of love for it. I grew up there.
Roxanne: Final question, any further thoughts or insights you’d like to share, anything exciting coming down the pipeline for you that you can share?
Richard: In 6 months, we’re going to see a dramatic shift in the landscape of Tampa Bay with regards to technology. Water Street’s getting off the ground. Synapse will be here and hopefully will be a smashing success like last year. I’m sure actually it will be. And you’re going to see a lot of change. Sparkman Wharf just got off the ground and it’s fantastic.
You’re just seeing all of the plans that have been laid out over the last few years are really starting to turn a corner here and all that stuff is bearing fruit. So, as great of a time as it is to be in Tampa right now, in 6 months, it’s only going to continue to get better and better and better. So, what am I looking forward to? One thing more than anything else is just seeing where we’re going to be in the next year. 2019 is going to be a huge year for Tampa, period. And I’m glad to be a part of it.
About Richard Munassi:
Dr. Richard Munassi is the TechDiversity Cohort Director at Tampa Bay WaVE. In his role, he mentors local startups. His focus is in Healthcare Technology.
Richard is also involved in a ton of cool projects, often in a Judge or Board Member capacity, and often in Science. He is very involved in Tampa’s startup scene.
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