A fledgling Lakeland venture capital company funded by the Barnett family has made a splash with its first investment, in a Tampa-area tech firm. The young leaders of the company, Lakeland Venture Investments, say that although their investment was directed outside Polk County, they envision closer ties between Gulf Coast and Central Florida enterprises.

Lakeland Venture Investments (LVI), officially registered with the state in early June, has invested an undisclosed six-figure amount in JustProtect, a cybersecurity company that specializes in regulation-compliance software.

According to a recent article in the Tampa Bay Business Journal that’s available only to subscribers, JustProtect was induced to move from New York City to Tampa through the Tampa Bay Wave, a business incubator similar to Lakeland’s Catapult.

LVI is run by two 30-something Lakelanders who have known each other since childhood, although the company’s funds come from Publix fortunes. David Ward, son of former Harrison School for the Arts principal Daryl Ward, is the firm’s business manager, and Wesley Barnett, son of Publix heiress Carol Jenkins Barnett and former Publix vice president Barney Barnett, is LVI’s principal officer.

Wesley Barnett | Mike Potthast www.potthaststudio

“My family’s capital is behind it. It’s an investment vehicle,” Barnett said in a video interview from a downtown restaurant. “We support Lakeland in many ways, and Lakeland’s businesses. We’re trying to build an ecosystem with multiple tiers for new companies. While JustProtect is based in Tampa, we see it as part of the ecosystem.”

The investment apparently got the attention of the Tampa Bay business community. Tampa Bay Business Journal quoted Allen Clary, director of investor relations at Tampa Bay Wave, as saying, “The one area we knew something was there but not enough about was Lakeland.”

JustProtect recently hired a graduate of Polk-based Florida Polytechnic University, and Barnett hinted that the Tampa company might consider relocating to the Lakeland area in the future.

“We’re big believers in the fact that a strong Tampa is good for Lakeland, and a strong Lakeland is good for Tampa. There is a lot of human capital here, and more and more companies are noticing it,” Ward said.

David Ward | Arnold Abellera 850-545-5950 ajs

Barnett said he and Ward looked at about two dozen companies before settling on JustProtect for their first investment.

“They had a product and customers coming in the door. They were resilient to the (COVID) crisis. But it really came down to the company’s founders. They’re very professional, and they left us believing they could execute on their mission,” he said. “This was a way to prime the pump and get the first (investment) under our belt. This may not be the next Microsoft, but we’re using them as a prototype.”

Ward said Catapult, Florida Polytechnic and the proposed Central Florida Innovation District that Polk leaders hope could become a high-tech hub are all potentially part of the “ecosystem” to which LVI could contribute.

“We’re very bullish on those. They can establish a foundation. They’re making good progress,” he said.

Christina Graham, executive director of Catapult, said she had not been contacted by Ward or Barnett, but she welcomed LVI’s presence in Lakeland.

“Having access to capital locally makes us visible on the national landscape,” she said. “Having that could be a huge advantage.”

Ward would not say how much capital LVI has available to spread around. Carol Jenkins Barnett has secured a spot on the list of the world’s wealthiest individuals by Forbes, which estimates her net worth as $2.1 billion.

Wesley Barnett said the coronavirus pandemic was part of the impetus for forming LVI.

“When the pandemic hit, we made some inroads with Tampa Bay Wave and asked which of their companies looked promising. We were going to have some funds, and we wanted to make sure that companies don’t get sucked down,” he said.

Ward added that it is sometimes more difficult for companies in small-to-midsized markets to find sufficient capital to keep going in difficult times.

“Wes and his family felt very passionately to see that good companies weren’t dying on the vine,” he said.

Ward, a lawyer, was recruited by the Barnetts to manage LVI. He said he gained business experience as a partner in a startup software company in Jacksonville. He now divides his time between Jacksonville and Lakeland.

“I love the aspects of starting a successful business. That’s what gets me up in the morning,” Ward said.

“David provides the expertise that make LVI possible,” Barnett said. “He allows us to scale up what we want to do.”

Ward and Barnett said there are no plans yet for LVI’s next investment.

“We’re taking it one step at a time. We’re big believers in being patient,” Ward said. “At some point, there will be more opportunities.”

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