Shining a light on the ‘unstoppable’ Florida tech growth, Synapse draws record crowd

Momentum, Metaverse and Miami take center stage at Tampa tech conference

The chatter at the daylong Synapse Summit in Tampa this week was equal parts a celebration of how far Florida has come to become an emerging player in the tech and startup world and the massive opportunities that lie ahead for the Sunshine State.

Certainly, there’s opportunity in healthcare-related tech, including brain-computer interface, AI and in space tech, all key technologies Florida is playing a role in. But much of the talk at Synapse was also about another frontier: the metaverse.

“Silicon Valley feels very web 2.0 and very old to me,” said Cathy Hackl, a keynote speaker (pictured above). “With Web3, innovation will be decentralized .., and that’s when Florida becomes this opportunity to be the place for metaverse innovation.”

Hackl is tech futurist and a prominent advisor in the emerging field who works with a number of large brands. The former Florida resident who earned her master’s degree at FIU and formerly worked at Magic Leap said the state already has a head start, citing “the fact that Magic Leap could become what they have become and do that from Florida.” Hackl worked with their then-chief futurist, Neal Stephenson, who coined the phrase metaverse in the 1990s,  “and it was one of the best experiences coming down to Florida and innovating there.”

She also cited a culture of gaming, and the proliferation of indie studios, artists and esports within the state. Indeed, just this week AEXLAB, a Miami-based VR gaming studio working in the metaverse, raised $5 million in funding. And then there’s crypto and NFTs, which she said is exploding in Miami. “I am spending about a third of my year down in Miami now because there is so much happening there – I feel like I am going to become a Florida resident pretty soon.”

More broadly, she said, community and authenticity are key to Web3. “If you are not focusing on community, if you are not focusing on being authentic you are doing it wrong. In the metaverse, we are all world builders and now is your time to build.”

Blockchain and NFTs were also the focus of several panel discussions throughout the day, and Tampa area blockchain startup founders of BlockSpaces, Pocket Network and Celsius were among the speakers and Synapse’s 300 exhibitors who lined the upper floors of the Amale Arena, where the conference was held. In addition to human-kind, there were plenty of robots to meet and VR games to explore.

More than 5,500 attended the annual conference, the largest crowd yet for the conference founded in 2018 with a mission to build a flourishing innovation hub in Florida, said Brian Kornfeld, CEO and co-founder of Synapse. In addition to Web3 discussions, attendees also heard talks about cybersecurity, fund-raising, diversity and inclusion, university R&D, healthtech, climate-tech, and state growth trends, all celebrating how far Florida’s ecosystem has come. “I think it’s become something unstoppable at this point,” said Ryan Whittemore, CIO of Florida Funders, the state’s most active VC firm that recently closed its second fund at $60 million.

A Synapse panel discussion on “Why Florida?” above and an investor lunch hosted by Florida Funders, below. All photos by Nancy Dahlberg/

South Florida was well represented at the event with literally dozens of community leaders and founders on stages giving talks throughout the day and/or exhibiting. Daniel Kleinman, CEO of Seaworthy Collective, was both a panelist on a climate-tech talk and pitched on center stage in Synapse’s innovator of the year award. He was a top 6 finalist. The winner was FAST, an online payment startup whose CEO moved from San Francisco to Tampa and opened an East Coast hub there last summer. Central Florida, the Space Coast and University of Florida were well represented too.

Manny Medina, considered by many to be the godfather of tech in Miami and the founder of eMerge Americas, kicked off the day with a keynote talk on center state. Although eMerge Americas and Synapse have always collaborated as they share an interest in moving the state forward in tech, they partnered more closely this year. On the Synapse stage, Medina shared his own journey as an immigrant from Cuba coming to this county at age 13 when Miami was a very different place (“he said his high school sport was playing “I survive”), as well as his career building, growing and selling Terremark before there was the tech in Miami tech, and now focusing on his now public cybersecurity unicorns and eMerge Americas, which returns April 18-19 with Serena Williams as a keynote.

Manny Medina is interviewed by Florida Trend’s David Denor

Speaking from his Terremark experience, he told founders in the audience that “crises are the best thing that can happen to you, and once you get over it, that’s your foundation. “We had just gone public, everything was going well, and within months the telecommunications industry implodes, the internet bubble bursts, and there was 9/11.”

He also shared advice to entrepreneurs that they themselves are a brand in progress and to find success make sure that you are building a trusted brand, not only in your products but in yourself. “You need to be trustworthy, reliable and people love to converge around people who are positive.”

Then to close out the conference, Felecia Hatcher, CEO of Black Ambition founded by Pharrell Williams and a Miami community builder who co-founded CodeFever, BlackTech Week and the Center for Black Innovation, among other endeavors, talked about tapping your zone of genius, or “what sets your soul on fire.” She told the audience: “Your gifts will make room for you, but first you have to tell them what rooms to take you in. And from your zone of genius, you have to unlock zones of opportunity.”

Felecia Hatcher, CEO of Black Ambition

Hatcher also used the stage to talk a bit about what she has spent her career doing — helping Black founders – and what the community should do too. “The biggest thing that irks me is hearing ‘diversity is hard.’ The metaverse is hard. And if we’re exploring that because we’re excited, imagine what we can do if we give founders the respectable amount of funding and resources they deserve.”

Follow Nancy Dahlberg on Twitter @ndahlberg and email her at [email protected]


Nancy Dahlberg