Florida's I-4 corridor is a high tech hotbed
Tourism, retirees and agriculture might have put Florida on the map, but the state is also becoming a mecca for high-tech industry. Nowhere is the transformation more evident than along what’s known as the Florida High-Tech Corridor, a 23-county area that runs from Tampa through Orlando to the Space Coast and bumps up to include Gainesville and Alachua County. From medical device manufacturers in Clearwater to simulation companies in Orlando to avionics suppliers on the Space Coast, the region’s diverse industry clusters encompass close to 20,000 businesses and more than a quarter of a million employees with an average salary of more than $77,000.
While many of those firms are homegrown startups, the region is also attracting newcomers who are migrating to the area to take advantage of the state’s favorable tax climate and skilled workforce.
“We were headquartered in Silicon Valley. We started to look around and figure out how we wanted to optimize our U.S. operations. When we looked at Gainesville, it really kept rising to the top,” says John Borgerding, CEO of SumTotal Systems, a human resources software company that got a foothold in Gainesville in 2006 with the purchase of MindSolve Technologies and moved its headquarters there in 2010.
Borgerding says he appreciated the state’s business-friendly climate and lack of an income tax, but the top attraction was a ready supply of talented graduates from the University of Florida and Santa Fe College. Locally, the company has grown from less than 30 employees to more than 200 over the past three years. “It’s really a great talent pool to draw from, a reasonable competitive base of going after that talent, where in Silicon Valley it very saturated from a high-tech standpoint.”
When Mazor Robotics, an Israeli company that produces a robotic guidance system for spinal procedures, was looking for a spot for its U.S. headquarters it considered New York, Boston, Atlanta and Dallas. At the urging of one of its customers, Florida Hospital, the company began looking at Florida and ultimately decided to locate in Orlando.
“There’s a lot going on in high tech, a lot going on in medical. You had a new medical school, two major hospital systems, Orlando Health and Florida Hospital, which is access to many types of health care providers,” says Christopher Prentice, Mazor’s vice president of global marketing. The sunny weather, he says, was also a plus: “It’s not hard to get surgeons or executives to come to Florida not only from the U.S., but from around the world, because we’re a global company.”
Kevin Maughan, with Novaerus, says Tampa’s “big talent pool,” lower cost of doing business and location gave it an edge over other Florida cities when he was deciding where to locate the company’s U.S. headquarters. The Irish company manufactures a patented airborne infection control device for health care facilities that destroys airborne pathogens, including viruses, bacteria and mold spores. Maughan says that Tampa “offered the most” as he seeks to penetrate Florida’s long-term care/skilled nursing market. Sales, he says, have been brisk since opening in Tampa last December. “It’s about between 3% and 4% who try our technology and don’t sign up — 95% plus do. We plan on growing rapidly within 50 miles.”
While the high-tech corridor’s three research universities and 14 state and community college provide a pipeline of talent for companies like Novaerus and SumTotal Systems, the institutions are also helping to foster innovative, tech startups like NanoSpective, which evaluates the atomic structure and composition of materials.
Brenda Prenitzer, president and CEO of NanoSpective, says she and three other University of Central Florida grad students decided to form NanoSpective in 2003, when the company where she worked, Agere Systems, a spinoff of Lucent Technologies, began winding down operations at its Orlando semi-conductor plant to move production overseas. With her job eliminated, Prenitzer and her colleagues saw an opportunity in what Lucent had left behind — a fully equipped facility that Lucent had helped establish on campus at UCF — and got assistance from the UCF Technology Incubator.
Ten years later, “business is booming,” Prenitzer says. The company provides nanoscale evaluation of products for everything from research and development — “we make sure that what a company thinks they’re making, they’re making” — to quality control, failure analysis and intellectual property protection. The seven-employee company has been growing consistently through word-of-mouth referrals. “We are working almost around the clock trying to manage the business that we have,” says Prenitzer.