Monthly Archives: September 2021


Featured Founder: John Fohr of TrustLayer

Welcome to our Featured Founder series, where you’ll meet startup founders from Tampa-St. Petersburg who are building and scaling their ventures to solve some of the world’s greatest challenges. We interviewed John Fohr of TrustLayer, which allows companies to automate tracking of insurance, licenses, and compliance docs of their business partners.

What were you doing previously and what inspired you to launch your company?

My previous work has been in private equity. One of the later deals I was working on prior to TrustLayer, was in construction. I quickly learned that there were many inefficiencies in the industry that would hold up work, deals, and, in general, cause project delays. One aspect, in particular, was the verification of certificates of insurance and other compliance documentation. When doing a deeper dive into the problem, I realized the processes were still primarily manual, and there was great opportunity for the digitization and automation of processes in all industries that collect and verify compliance information of their business partners.

What pain point is your company solving? What gets you excited to go to work every day?

Insurance verification is a required activity to reduce risk when working with third parties. Companies spend a huge amount of time verifying compliance of their vendors - ensuring correct coverages/coverage limits, dealing with expired policies, tracking down missing endorsements, and managing the risk of fraudulent certificates of insurance (COIs). This creates significant financial and operational risks for companies stemming from lawsuits and additional claims that could be avoided. TrustLayer automates inefficient, paper-based workflows to allow companies to validate whether their third-parties (subcontractors/ vendors/ tenants/ suppliers/ borrowers/ franchisees) have the correct coverage, saving them time, improving compliance processes, and decreasing risk.

What gets me excited every day working at TrustLayer is being able to build an amazing team and scale a company that has the potential to fundamentally change how an industry communicates digitally and shares data. Seeing the team grow from two founders to a team of over 30 (as of this writing) and realizing how much we’ve accomplished with our small team has been surreal.

Name the biggest challenge you faced in the process of launching the company. How did you overcome it?

One of the biggest challenges we faced at the beginning of our journey was product/market fit and gaining those initial customers to show traction with our MVP. We partnered early on with an organization in the home builder industry that helped us gain our first customers and a good amount of beta testers that provided us with valuable feedback to help create a better product offering for our users.

Where do you see your company headed next?

TrustLayer is now working with dozens of the largest brokers and carriers in the U.S. to build out a digital proof of insurance solution to enable companies to automatically validate if their business partners have the correct coverage. Our Digital Proof of Coverage will eliminate fraudulent Certificates of Insurance (COI), protect stakeholders that rely on insurance, and reduce manual, error-prone processes in the risk transfer chain.

Give us a tactical piece of advice that you'd share with another founder just starting out.

One piece of tactical advice for other founders is that maintaining a healthy talent pipeline is as important as a healthy sales pipeline. Early on in our company’s journey, we were going after and signing companies of any size. In an early-stage startup, you’re trying to sell and pitch to anyone that you think might be a good fit, large or small. We were fortunate enough to partner with some large companies in our early days but didn’t have the proper personnel to handle all aspects of working with large companies, from the implementation and training to support. We had to hire and build infrastructure quickly while onboarding new customers. We learned that understanding the scope/size of potential customers and maintaining a healthy pipeline of talent is extremely important.

Why Tampa Bay?

Tampa Bay was a great fit for TrustLayer as it’s an emerging city for innovators with many out-of-state tech companies relocating to the area. For a startup of our size, doing business in Tampa made sense as it’s cost-effective and has an excellent pool of talent from local universities. Tampa is still in its early stages of development as a nationally recognized tech hub, so there’s huge potential for growth here for TrustLayer.


Recap: 2021 Strategy + Leadership Summit

This week Embarc Collective hosted its annual Strategy + Leadership Summit, powered by ReliaQuest, for Embarc Collective member companies.  This was a full day of sessions led by executive leaders at ReliaQuest and created to help guide Embarc Collective members with their annual strategic planning.




Thank you to the ReliaQuest team for sharing your time and knowledge with the Embarc Collective community. As one member said: "There are not enough superlatives for the value I got from the day." Here are just a few of the takeaways from the day:


"Planning helps to architect what's possible" - Brian Murphy, CEO and Founder of ReliaQuest

This hit home - so many of us are creating new possibilities with our businesses. However, without a clear path forward, we are reducing our ability to build what we believe to be possible.


"You can only go as far as the people around you are willing to take you." - Derin McMains, Director of Mental Conditioning

We are all building teams that will bring a vision to life. We need to lead in a way that motivates and guides them to build strong solutions. That's the only way we'll be successful in our pursuit.


"Premature optimization is the root of all evil" - Joe Partlow, Chief Technology Officer, and Brian P. Murphy, Chief Architect

Each startup at Embarc Collective likely has a tale of how they learned this the hard way.


"The customer has to be at the center of all you do." - Alex Bender, Chief Marketing Officer

The customer is the hero of your brand story.


"There are few problems more sales can't solve." - Greg Farrell, Chief Financial Officer, and Jody Keeling, Vice President, Corporate Counsel

There is always a solution for the curveballs thrown at you. You just have to find it.


"You will not be able to sell in channel until you can sell in a repeatable way." - Colin O'Connor, Chief Operating Officer

Developing a repeatable sales process is the key to unlocking scale.


"Values and non-negotiables are the only things that won't change." - Abby Boyle, Director of Recruiting

Startups are living, changing entities. What you are building and how you are building may change, but why you are building should stay consistent.  To that end, ensure you and your team are always aligned with your values and your culture. Those will remain steady as you evolve.



2021 Southeast Capital Landscape

Over the past three years, Build In SE and Embarc Collective have produced an annual report on investor growth trends taking place throughout the Southeast region (defined as Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, & West Virginia).

Since the report’s inception, our data-led observations have indicated that over the past three years the Southeast has steadily grown by 30% in new firm creation. There are currently over 280 identified firms that are actively investing in pre-seed to private equity—demonstrating a growth of 40 new firms since our 2020 report and 80 added firms since our inaugural 2019 report.

Within our respective startup communities, one of the most common questions we hear is, “Who are the active investors in the Southeast I should connect with?” We remain committed to providing you with a free open-source database of 280+ (and growing) firms from angel networks through private equity. We hope this landscape serves as a resource to help:

  • Startups identify local, active investors
  • Talent looking to build a career investing within the Southeast
  • Investors looking to build relationships with Southeast-based co-investors

View the Southeast Capital Landscape Here



Tech migration to the Southeast from traditional hubs like Silicon Valley and New York accelerated with remote work adoption during COVID closures. By normalizing virtual meetings between investors and startup CEOs, dollars allocated to Southeast-based startups grew, leading to both an influx of newly relocated firms and new funds raised to capture local deal flow.

In the past year, venture firms such as Founders Fund, Harlem Capital, and General Catalyst, to name a few, opened Southeast offices, along with the announcement of new, dedicated investment vehicles such as SoftBank’s $100M Miami Initiative, and another $100M Opportunity Growth Fund with an Atlanta-based partner. In future annual reports we intend to collect further data on the assets under management (AUM) of venture firms headquartered or with satellite offices in the Southeast, as the regional AUM appears to be growing year-over-year.

Beyond Twitter chatter highlighting Miami as a destination for venture capitalists, the highest density of venture funds in the Southeast exists within the states of Florida (79 venture firms across 11 cities), Georgia (57 firms), and Tennessee (41 firms).

In addition to the relocation or advent of new firms, the Southeast experienced an influx of individual tech talent moving in from cities like San Francisco, New York, Chicago, and Boston. Each transplant brings their unique experience, network, and (in some cases) investment capital that will make a long-term impact on our communities. Some examples of the micro-impact of this tech talent migration include Steve Parkis (former Zynga executive in San Francisco) who became an investor and advisor in Leasecake, Ideal Agent, and DocClocker and Ty Blachly (former Chief of Staff at Snap in Los Angeles), who joined the advisory board of Openly upon relocating to the Southeast.



The influx of new talent and the launch of new companies have contributed to a number of developing industry-specific trends in the region.

In the Southeast, fintech startups are no longer only found in Atlanta and Charlotte. Northern Virginia is home to both Streetshares, a digital banking tool provider, and Rize, a fintech-as-a-service startup that connects players across the financial services ecosystem with robust APIs, as well as notable fintech fund started by the co-founder of Capital One, QED Investors. Nashville is also home to several startups thriving in unique niches in the fintech space: Alto Solutions allows users to invest IRA funds in alternative assets, and Blueprint Title Built Technologies provides technology-enabled lending solutions for construction lenders.

Gaming has taken the Southeast by storm, perhaps partially inspired by the success of Epic Games in Cary, NC or EA Sports’ east headquarters in Orlando. Other game-builders are following suit, such as mobile fantasy sports developer Synkt Games and VR developer AEXLAB, both based in Miami. Startups that facilitate the success of the gaming industry are also booming, like Atlanta’s digital asset manager Mudstack and eSports operator Skillshot Media.

Biotech innovation is being found outside of Boston and San Francisco, too. BIO Alabama initiative is helping drive the creation and flourishment of biotech and pharma startups in the state, including at the esteemed HudsonAlpha accelerator in Huntsville. And since the beginning of 2021, life sciences companies in North Carolina have experienced over $3B in investment and created nearly 3,000 new jobs.




2021 brought a notable shift in the VC landscape, where we began to see an increase in the allocation of funding for underrepresented founders.

Atlanta has been at the center of this shift. The city is home to several funds focused on investing in companies founded by BIPOC, including Fearless Fund ($5M fund which specifically focuses on women of color-led businesses), Collab Capital ($50M fund which focuses on Black founders), and the Zane Venture Fund ($25M fund backing diverse founders). According to TechCrunch, 41% of the 36 early-stage VC firms in Atlanta identify as having a diversity focus across investments, identify as having a diverse fund management team, or both. And this focus is having a real impact: Crunchbase data indicates that in the first half of 2021, Black-founded startups in Georgia raised $438M, versus only $25M in all of 2020.

This shift isn’t limited to Atlanta, either. Birmingham’s Bronze Valley is a non-profit, early-stage venture investment platform that supports startups created by diverse, underrepresented, and underestimated founders. Stand Together Ventures Lab in Virginia invests in startups tackling structural issues that disproportionately impact communities of color, such as criminal justice, immigration, and education inequality. In Nashville, the first Black healthcare fund in America, Jumpstart Nova, announced a $30M fund.




In an added effort to diversify capital, the first SE Women Investor Directory was published in Q1 of this year as a new resource to identify, track, and connect active investors who self-identify as women and direct funds on behalf of institutional venture capital firms. At present, the directory includes 90 investors representing 70 firms across a total of 23 Southeastern cities and 10 states (including Louisiana). By the end of 2021, the SE Women Investor Directory is targeted to grow to over 100 active institutional investors.

The state with the highest number of active women investors is Georgia with 25, followed by Tennessee and Florida tied for second place with 19 institutional investors. Over half (53 of 90, or 58%) of women investors in the Southeast hold top leadership titles of Founding and/or General Partner, Managing Partner/Director, or Partner.

New women-led venture firms in the Southeast established in 2021 include TechFarms Capital (Pensacola), SteelSky Ventures (relocated to Atlanta from NYC), Collab Capital (Atlanta), and Backend Capital (expanded presence from SF to Miami).



Over the years, we’ve heard many anecdotes from founders crafting their investor prospecting list and investors finding deal flow and co-investment opportunities from this resource. We hope that it serves a similar purpose for you and encourage you to share our open-source database widely.

View the Southeast Capital Landscape Here

Note: This is a list of angel networks, institutional venture firms, and private equity capital providers in the Southeastern United States that are currently active with Assets Under Management. To request the addition of any firm not currently listed, please fill out this form.

*A reminder that for this project, we defined the Southeast as a collection of states including Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. Data were aggregated and analyzed from PwC MoneyTree Reports, BIP Capital, Crunchbase, Pitchbook, and self-reported by accelerators, entrepreneurs, and investors from within the region.




Collaboration, as demonstrated through this project, is vital to taking the Southeast to the next level in growing and retaining more high-value companies. Here are the organizations that helped make this report a reality:



Our #BuildInSE mission is to increase the number of startup success stories in the Southeast by leveraging a cross-regional, collaborative network. We build regional intelligence through our team of local ecosystem builders, Alliance partners, and investor communities, all in support of founders as they launch and scale their startups. Build In SE is a certified Benefit Corporation headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee.



Embarc Collective is a nonprofit startup hub helping founders in the Tampa Bay region build bold, scalable, thriving companies. Embarc Collective offers hands-on support driven by the unique goals and needs of each member startup at its 32,000 square-foot office in downtown Tampa. Member companies receive customized, ongoing coaching and support from startup veterans to help propel member companies’ growth. Embarc Collective works with a growing roster of 100 early-stage startups and is the fastest-growing startup hub in Florida.


Milestone Moment: 100 Startups at Embarc Collective


Embarc Collective has hit one of its most exciting milestones to date. As of last month, we grew to 100 active member companies that are a part of this thriving startup community.

This makes Embarc Collective the fastest-growing startup hub in Florida.



Building a startup is one of life's hardest pursuits, and it's not for everyone. When leading a startup, there is no cushion to protect you from the volatility of your business. 

You feel the joys head-on from winning a customer, from securing investment, or from hiring a new team member. But you also feel the painful direct hit when a client ghosts you, when you hear "no" 100 times or more from investors, or when a co-founder leaves your team because of a conflict.

That’s why we call ourselves a Collective.

It is well documented that you have a better chance of startup success if you don't build alone.  Building around others arms you for the extreme (and inevitable) ups and downs of running a startup every day.

 At Embarc Collective, we believe you shouldn't have to build alone:

  • You should have access to the learnings of those building at the same time as you
  • You should have people to celebrate with when things go right
  • And you should have support when things go wrong

Reaching 100 member startups in two years is the result of the power that’s unleashed when you assemble an experienced, supportive, and driven community.

Beyond building this incredible startup community, Embarc Collective is making an impact on the Tampa community as a whole. With our high volume of startups, you all are leading our startup ecosystem’s transition from early-stage to growth stage. 

Thank you because you have made Embarc Collective what it is today - congratulations to your teams, your businesses, and your evolving journey. You are an owner in our collective success, and I can't wait to have more join us in our journey.

Cheers to many more celebrations to come!