East Central/ Space Coast: Technology Rules
Research universities and skilled talent spawn innovative business 'clusters.'
Technical expertise: Forbes magazine ranked the Palm Bay-Melbourne-Titusville metropolitan statistical area as 8th in the nation among technical workforces for 2009. The brain power that has kept the U.S. space program in operation since the 1950s has taken root in the 72-mile long Brevard County, much of it settling in the far south in Palm Bay, which houses about one-fifth of the county’s total population of approximately 500,000. Nestled in this quiet residential community, several technology companies are making major strides in research and development. While mega-defense contractor Harris Corporation is the best-known and continues to land multimillion-dollar contracts worldwide, others are carving their own niches.
Scientific inquiry blossoms: When Kansas City, Mo.-based Midwest Research Institute (MRI) purchased a facility in Palm Bay in fall 2001, it was for the purpose of addressing a challenge to the nation’s security. In the days following the 9/11 attacks, 100 people — part of MRI’s nationwide workforce of 2,000 — labored inside that laboratory to unravel the mystery of letters containing deadly anthrax. Today, MRI, which operates the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., for the U.S. Department of Energy, is using its Brevard County site to research algae as a source of fuel, among other projects. In April 2009, MRI established a Clinical Molecular Diagnostics Laboratory at its Palm Bay facility. The fully accredited and licensed laboratory provides assay development and support for clinical trials.
Advanced Magnet Lab in Palm Bay was formed in 1995 after Mark Senti, president of a robotics and automation company, met Dr. Rainer Meinke, a scientist with the superconducting supercollider in Texas. Congress had just canceled funding for Meinke’s project, so the two men decided to join forces.
The engineering and development company that resulted from their partnership today focuses on electromagnetic technology and has generated proprietary software and a portfolio of patents in the field. Advanced Magnet Lab’s facilities include a superconductivity lab and areas for research, design and manufacturing, and its work has applications in the medical, aerospace and airline industries, says Senti, VP for business development.
With 12 full-time employees and plans to expand to 80 over the next three years, the company wants to see its work complement that of Brevard County’s other technology companies while, at the same time, taking advantage of a workforce that contains actual rocket scientists.
Senti calls the company’s revolutionary technology “the first fundamental change since electromagnetics were first invented in the mid-1800s.”
“Much like the invention of electricity, superconductivity will have an enormous impact on society, the quality of life, economics and the environment,” he says. “Florida is uniquely poised to benefit from this revolution and has a tremendous number of existing organizations which are synergistic and ‘hungry’ for the next technology wave.”
Among them, Senti says, are: NASA’s Kennedy Space Center; the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory in Tallahassee; the Center for Advanced Power Systems and Applied Superconductivity Center at Florida State University; Florida Space Institute; Space Florida; Florida Space Authority; and the Spaceport Research & Technology Institute.
Flying into the future: Daytona Beach is home to the world’s largest accredited aviation-oriented university. Founded in 1925, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University is uniquely positioned to assist the aerospace and aviation industries in facing the challenges of today’s economy by:
- Helping formulate a plan for replacing jobs that will be eliminated when NASA ends the space shuttle program at Kennedy Space Center in December 2010
- Managing a consortium of state universities that are developing plans to modernize the nation’s aerospace and aviation industries
- Preparing for an influx of veterans who will need civilian training when they return from war fronts in the Middle East
As one of Volusia County’s largest employers, the university pumps approximately $414 million into the local economy each year. Embry-Riddle serves more than 34,000 students annually in a variety of graduate and undergraduate programs and is awaiting accreditation on doctoral programs in aviation and engineering physics. Together, the Daytona Beach facility, its sister campus in Prescott, Ariz., and a virtual campus train aviators worldwide.
|Live, work, play
Community leaders are joining forces to make Volusia County a more attractive place to live, work and play. Among them is Buddy LaCour, a Daytona Beach native who formed LaCour and Company Real Estate Development about 10 years ago to build everything from shopping centers and restaurants to business condominiums.
The company’s largest and most visible project is the Port Orange Riverwalk, which LaCour is overseeing with partners Ken and Linda McGauran of McGauran Investments. Although the economic downturn has slowed the development somewhat, plans still call for a pedestrian-friendly old Florida-style town center along the Halifax River with a public park, marina, shops, restaurants and 300 condominiums in Phase I.
“We’ve found Port Orange a very viable marketplace for business expansion,”
LaCour says. “I’ve traveled a lot through the years in my business ventures, but now I live in Ponce Inlet. I enjoy going home and sleeping in my own bed.
“We’re focused here,” he says. “We think the stability will return and this is the place to be.”