In the spring of 2016, Brian Kornfeld attended an Executive MBA program event at USF where he had earned an MBA two years earlier. The guest speaker that day was Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, a driving force behind Tampa’s downtown redevelopment.
Kornfeld, a Clearwater native, had returned to the Tampa Bay region several years earlier and was trying to gain his footing in the startup economy. His first venture: a personalized recommendation engine he launched in 2013 that he said “failed miserably.”
Applying lessons from that experience, Kornfeld launched a second company that was more successful, but had plateaued. By the time he attended Vinik’s talk, Kornfeld was searching for reasons behind the challenges facing company founders in a stagnant innovation market.
Vinik wrapped up his presentation by discussing the need for an innovation hub in the Tampa region. For Kornfeld, it was a career-changing moment.
“It really caught me off guard,” Kornfeld said of Vinik’s closing remarks. “I went up to him afterward and asked how I could help. I wrote him a carefully crafted email, and he answered within an hour and said, ‘Let’s have a meeting.’”
Six weeks later, Kornfeld shared with Vinik his research into what was happening in other emerging innovation markets such as Nashville, Austin and Boulder, as well as actions and potential solutions. They discussed what was working and what wasn’t, and how that applied to the Tampa Bay region.
“It came down to the fact that people weren’t connecting here, at least not at scale,” Kornfeld said. “The larger companies were not getting involved with the local ecosystem. The news coverage wasn’t celebrating startup successes. And there were some gaps in educating entrepreneurs about things like blockchain and how to invest in tech if you invest in real estate. Those concepts were foreign here.”
After meeting with Vinik, Kornfeld made connections with two other USF alumni – Marc Blumenthal and Andy Hafer. The two shared his interest in creating a neutral nonprofit entity that would bring together aspiring entrepreneurs and help them launch successful startups. Together they founded Tampa-based Synapse, of which Kornfeld serves as CEO, and provides the framework for connecting Florida’s innovation communities.
A centerpiece of that work is the annual Synapse Summit, which began in 2018 and serves as a platform for attendees to network and share ideas. The fifth Synapse Summit is Feb. 17 at Amalie Arena.
Synapse has played an important role in helping to transform a region Kornfeld believes is nearly unrecognizable from the one he remembers growing up in Clearwater.
Back then, he was fascinated with aircraft. For his seventh birthday, he received a cat and named it “Maverick” after Tom Cruise’s swashbuckling Navy pilot role in the hit 1986 film “Top Gun”. He watched from home as space shuttles launched and orbited the planet and was intrigued by their ability to take people to parts of the universe most never get to see.
“Flight and space travel open up so many doors of possibility, and I’ve always been the type of person who likes possibilities,” Kornfeld said.
When it came time to start thinking about a career, Kornfeld could have gone the “safe route.” That would have meant enrolling in medical school and eventually taking over the family’s practice from his father, a Clearwater physician who specializes in allergies, asthma, immunology and infectious disease.
“My life would have been decided for me at 17 years old,” Kornfeld said. “And that was never going to be my path.”
Instead, he followed his dreams. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan, a master’s from the University of Florida and moved to California, where he took a job with aerospace and defense technology giant Northrop Grumman.
Kornfeld worked on a team that conducted pre-flight testing for a missile-defense satellite that ended up in outer space and later performed quality and data analysis for various fighter jets, including the F-18, similar to the F-14 flown by Cruise’s character in “Top Gun”.
Kornfeld loved the lifestyle in California, where he lived near the beach and met his future wife, Marcy. But when Kornfeld’s mother became ill, the couple moved back to Florida.
After taking a job with an electronics firm, he felt pulled toward entrepreneurship. He saw in the fast-growing Tampa Bay region an opportunity for startup companies and decided he wasn’t destined for an engineering career.
To better understand the financial side of business ownership for his own benefit and to help guide other aspiring founders, Kornfeld enrolled at USF and earned an MBA in 2014. That connection eventually led to the meeting with Vinik and, ultimately, to Synapse’s creation.
“This innovation community looks nothing like it did five years ago,” Kornfeld said. “The quality of founders has gone up tremendously. We’ve had more companies dubbed unicorns in the last 24 months than probably ever before. It’s amazing to think about how fast the region has grown, and I’m greatly looking forward to what will come in these next five years and how the region will continue to transform and grow. USF plays a very active role in all of that with its partnerships and community support infrastructure, and with the top-notch talent and research that it produces.”