Dream "BIG"

By Beau Denton January 31, 2014

A new program offers budding entrepreneurs funding, mentors and moral support.


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The Gulf Coast lags behind the rest of Florida in growing microenterprises and small businesses, according to the Gulf Coast Community Foundation. But it’s not for a lack of resources. The foundation identified 15 organizations, from education partnerships to incubators to networking groups, willing to assist startups, but the help was fractured and difficult to find.

Enter BIG, Bright Ideas on the Gulf Coast, which the foundation launched last September after researching the University of Miami’s Launch Pad and similar programs around the country. At the moment, BIG is made up of project director Suzette Jones and a website (, but the hope is that BIG will grow to become a one-stop resource to help budding entrepreneurs, with a regular on-campus presence at Ringling College, New College, State College of Florida and USF.

“We may never become a global marketplace like Miami,” Jones says, “but we can produce a boutique innovation economy that can rival anyone’s.”

Jones, who calls herself the “concierge,” is there to collect ideas, suggest possible connections and do whatever it takes to help new businesses grow. That includes everything from helping locate funding sources to pairing entrepreneurs with top-notch retired CEOs­­­—she calls them “idea coaches”—who live in the area. Idea coaches are similar to mentors, Jones says, but coaches are “godfathers,” much more hands-on, meeting with entrepreneurs to hash out detailed long-range plans and even phoning ex-colleagues and potential investors on their behalf.

She believes Sarasota is full of untapped CEO-level knowledge and successful businesspeople eager to play the role. One of those willing executives is Longboat Key resident Dean Eisner, the former CEO of Manheim, one of the world’s largest auto auction firms, who was active in spurring the BIG concept.

While Jones has taken the lead since BIG’s launch, Eisner is concentrating on building a database of entrepreneurs and their companies and identifying wealthy locals who might be interested in providing capital to new ventures. Finding funding is one of the biggest challenges for startups. Investors can be instrumental in accelerating a business plan: Instead of taking five years to scale up, companies can do it in 12 months, Jones says. And if startups find investment cash elsewhere, they leave. The region needs to start attracting the attention of venture funds and angel investors if it wants to keep promising entrepreneurs in town.

Southwest Florida may be filled with wealthy, successful executives, but many are older and less willing to risk thousands or even millions of dollars on the chance that an idea will hit. “Do the executives want to go play golf and go to an early dinner?” Eisner asks. “Yes, but they want to keep their minds going as well. Many just don’t know how to plug in.”

While the foundation approved $160,000 for BIG for one year, Jones says the plan is to establish “deep roots” within three years. Success will be gauged by the number of ideas submitted, connections made, businesses formed and jobs created. Year One is about reaching out to college students, and Jones has established regular office hours at New College and USF, while visiting classes at both State College of Florida and Ringling.

BIG has identified four major growth areas: sports performance, niche health care fields like wellness and caring for the aging, marine sciences and biology, and digital arts and niche technology. One hundred people asked for help from BIG in the first six weeks.

It’s too early for any home runs, but here are a handful of entrepreneurs who have connected with Jones and BIG.


Jean-Yves Bancilhon, REDSWIPE

(Pictured at top) Like many product ideas, Jean-Yves Bancilhon’s was born of frustration. He traveled frequently for business and hated collecting “pesky little receipts.” Five years ago he developed a digital system to allow users to automatically record their expenses. The idea was that business transactions could be recorded at the point of sale with the swipe of a card, a sticker, a key ring, your phone, etc.

That concept quickly mushroomed into RedSwipe, a mobile marketing platform that also allows consumers to use those swipes to earn loyalty rewards from companies without having to sign up for email marketing campaigns. The scanners used by the stores remain completely separate from any credit card or other personal information, so the consumer earns deals while maintaining privacy and without having to sift through a digital spam heap.

Bancilhon officially launched RedSwipe last fall. Consumers love the idea, he says. But retailers are another story. Many still rely on direct email marketing. “You want to reach your customer and you want to reach them in a noninvasive manner,” he says. “That’s what we provide.”

Seven local developers are working with RedSwipe, and Bancilhon has kept costs down while starting to generate some revenue; but he says taking the next step will require an infusion of cash.  “I’m a small company,” he says. “In order for this product to go big, it needs to go huge, and I need some very deep pockets.”

Jones has paired him with an idea coach, Bud Aspatore, a global expert in turnaround management and investment banking. Aspatore’s role isn’t all that different from when he consulted with manufacturers and investors. “You’re a sounding board,’ he says. “There are very few problems that haven’t been invented yet.”

Bancilhon says the mentoring, the possibility of investment, the introductions to other companies and organizations, “are very valuable to a startup business like me.”

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Barbara Wheatley,ICEPODZ

When the air conditioning failed in both her home and her car four years ago, Barbara was facing foreclosure and receiving food stamps, so she came up with a cheap way to stay cool. She and her two kids wrapped ice in towels and put them around their necks. When her son wore one to a tennis clinic, a coach asked her to bring him more. Soon after, Wheatley started making cold sleeves, now known as Icepodz, for a UPS driver who wore them around his neck and wrists during long, hot days in his un-air-conditioned truck.

A $2,500 loan from friends enabled her to make more sleeves, and a connection with a manufacturer helped her refine the ice packs. Today, she holds three patents and sells Icepodz at local events and online.

Wheatley wants to grow, but also wants to manufacture locally. A program she invented that she calls “raw-funding” allows 20 percent of Icepodz sales made through other organizations and businesses to be directed to worthwhile charities and sports leagues.

The Icepodz concept fits squarely in one of the major sectors BIG has identified as a significant growth area: sports performance. With established institutions like IMG Academy and emerging events like the coming World Rowing Championships, the area is ripe for sports-related businesses, Jones says.

Wheatley is talking to Jones about identifying an idea coach for her business, and says BIG has the potential to keep entrepreneurs from giving up. “You hit a wall where you don’t have anything more in your bag of tricks,” Wheatley says. “It’s going to be this amazing resource.”

Hunting for studio space: Ringling grads Chris Shumaker and Diana Lueken.

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Diana Lueken and Chris Shumaker, ART STUDIO RENTALS

Recent Ringling College graduates Diana Lueken and Chris Shumaker say the idea for their business bubbled up when they graduated last May and lost access to the school’s studio space. Their frustration is common among fellow graduates. “Not everyone has a two-ton press at home,” says Lueken. So the pair is pitching a business concept of a studio space that will offer a combination of printmaking workshops, studio rentals and demonstrations for local students and schools.

Lueken and Shumaker are both spending personal money to purchase equipment for the studio, working multiple jobs to make ends meet and hitting up family and friends for support. They’re quickly learning how to develop their first-ever business plan. “At Ringling, they taught us problem-solving,” Shumaker says. For now, that means reaching out to successful print studios in other cities and networking through the college.

Ringling College special assistant to the president Christine Lange called Lueken when she heard about BIG, and the two connected with Jones shortly thereafter. Lueken says Jones has already offered to connect them with someone who might have the space they’re looking for, and to set them up with an idea coach.

The entrepreneurs both know plenty of Ringling and New College alumni who have wanted to stick around, but couldn’t find work or resources. The pair believes they can offer a space that helps keep them in town. “Sarasota will start to grow just as much as Miami in the arts community,” Lueken says. “We definitely want to be a part of that bloom.”

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