Infrastructure: Fallen Star
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Perhaps the high point for Orlando's Central Florida Innovation Corp. (CFIC) came during the summer of 2000, when a small company that it had helped nurture raised $86 million in an initial public offering. That company, Triton Network Systems, didn't survive the technology crash, however, and now CFIC itself has also become a victim.
Although CFIC had struggled for several years to attract private clients who could fund its programs, it was still a surprise when the not-for-profit announced plans to close in October. One contributing factor: CFIC's largest client, MetaTech Ventures, discontinued its support when CFIC's longtime leader, Richard Fox, left CFIC to
join MetaTech last year.
In the wake of Fox's departure, Orlando couldn't -- or wouldn't -- provide the private-sector funding to continue CFIC's mission of helping startup companies with money, management and marketing.
Public money got CFIC and a network of similar organizations off the ground in the early 1990s. When the Legislature set up Enterprise Florida, it included plans for a network of Innovation Commercialization Centers designed to help new businesses grow. The idea was that the state would chip in a few million dollars to help the centers get started, with the private sector providing matching grants. Once up and running, the centers would generate cash flow by charging fees to client companies and, longer term, profiting from equity stakes in client companies that are acquired or go public.
It didn't quite work out that way. The overall business recession along with the technology meltdown led to a two-pronged problem: Client fees dried up, and the value of equity stakes in client companies fell dramatically. With CFIC's demise, only two of the original commercialization centers remain, Enterprise North Florida Corp. in Jacksonville and Enterprise Development Corp. in Palm Beach County.
Not all is lost
Where does CFIC's closing leave technology entrepreneurship in central Florida? A positive force is the University of Central Florida Technology Incubator, which has grown dramatically in recent years and has assisted more than 70 emerging companies and helped create 400 jobs. The incubator will co-host CFIC's 2004 Innovation Florida Venture Capital Conference scheduled for September.
MetaTech Ventures and Milcom Technologies, both companies backed by venture capital, continue to help commercialize technologies that come out of defense contractors, corporations, federal research laboratories and other research organizations.
In 2003, UCF was awarded one of three $10-million state "centers of excellence" grants for photonics. The new center will enable UCF's School of Optics/CREOL (Center for Research and Education in Optics and Lasers) to expand into the growing areas of nanophotonics, biophotonics, advanced imaging and 3-D displays, and ultra-high bandwidth communications.
The state's idea was that the funding will provide seed money that should help the centers attract more federal dollars -- the big money for university research centers. Ultimately, the idea is to create strong university-business partnerships along the lines of those in Silicon Valley, Boston's Route 128 Corridor and North Carolina's Research Triangle.
Finally, a couple of hundred miles down the road in Palm Beach County will be Scripps Florida. What the non-profit biomedical research firm will bring to central Florida is anybody's guess.