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Central Florida: High Tech Hotbed

Modeling, Simulation, Training

» In the 1960s, the U.S. Army and Navy dispatched a small group of simulation experts to Orlando to begin designing training devices and systems at the Orlando Army Air Base, which later became the Orlando Naval Training Center. Five decades later, Orlando boasts the nation’s largest cluster of modeling and training companies, with more than 100 companies and more than 12,500 employees. (The modeling and simulation industry employs 27,000 statewide). Adjacent to the main campus of the University of Central Florida, the 1,000-acre Central Florida Research Park is home to simulation commands for all major branches of the military and more than 100 companies that produce and service training systems for the military. The research park also houses the National Center for Simulation, the simulation community’s non-profit trade association, and the University of Central Florida’s Institute for Simulation Training. Industry leaders range from homegrown companies such as Engineering & Computer Simulations, a 16-year-old company that designs virtual worlds that the Defense Department uses to train soldiers and first responders, to Adacel, an Australian company that creates simulators that train both civilian and military air-traffic controllers. Other major players include Northrop Grumman, Science Applications International, Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics IT. While industry players have begun looking to diversify into other areas, such as medical, education and transportation amid defense budget cuts, Tom Baptiste, the retired lieutenant general who’s president of the National Center for Simulation, predicts that simulation won’t be as hard hit as other types of defense contractors. “In an austere budget environment, one of the big challenges for combatant commanders is to maintain the readiness of the force with less money ... and simulation in many ways is a safety valve, a stopgap that is part of the solution. It’s a cost-effective alternative to high-cost live training.”

Optics and Photonics

» Before Disney, the Orlando region’s non-agricultural economy was dominated by the defense and aerospace industries, led by Martin Marietta’s decision in 1956 to build a plant in the region. The defense giant (now Lockheed Martin) and the nearby military installations it served became a linchpin in the local economy. In the early 1960s, Martin Marietta began working on lasers as a new technology for missile guidance. That research jump-started an industry that today employs about 15,000 workers in the Orlando region and contributes more than $2 billion to the regional gross product. With more than 95 optics and photonics companies in the business of lasers for medical, defense, communications and other applications, Orlando ranks as one of the top four optics and photonics hubs in the nation — alongside Tucson, Ariz.; San Jose, Calif.; and Rochester, N.Y. The establishment in 1986 of the Center for Research and Education in Optics and Lasers (CREOL) at UCF has also fueled the industry’s growth and given rise to successful startups like Crystal Photonics. Founded by two UCF professors, the Sanford-based company manufactures crystals for microelectronic and photonic industry applications. Another CREOL spinoff, OptiGrate, was named Small Manufacturer of the Year by the Manufacturers Association of Central Florida. The Oviedo company specializes in designing and developing holographic optical elements.

Digital Media / Intertactive Entertainment

» The metro Orlando area is home to more than 1,200 digital media companies, including EA Tiburon, the Maitland-based studio of video game giant Electronic Arts, maker of top-selling games like Madden NFL and Tiger Woods PGA Tour. Other companies such as Premise Entertainment and TIC Productions develop animated content for entertainment giants like Disney and Universal. Local higher education institutions are graduating students for the industry through specialized training programs. While undergraduate students at Full Sail University can earn degrees in digital arts and design, University of Central Florida’s Florida Interactive Academy offers a graduate-level video game design degree. Both Valencia College and Seminole State College offer two-year degrees in digital media. The Digital Animation and Visual Effects School, located at Universal Studios, offers a diploma in digital animation and visual effects.

Life Science / Biotech / Medical

» Thirty minutes southeast of downtown Orlando and adjacent to Orlando International Airport, Lake Nona’s “Medical City” is a 650-acre emerging life sciences cluster featuring state-of-the-art clinical care, biotech research and educational facilities. Anchored by UCF’s College of Medicine, which graduated its charter class of students in May, and the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, Medical City is also home to the Cancer Research Institute of MD Anderson Orlando, Nemours Children’s Hospital, University of Florida Academic and Research Center and a VA Medical Center that will be the headquarters for the VA’s new medical simulation system. Valencia College has also opened a campus there to train students for careers in life sciences and other fields. The hope is that in time, research at medical city will spin off new companies. The Orlando region is also home to two of the nation’s largest hospital systems — Florida Hospital and Orlando Health — as well as one of the nation’s largest specialty pharmacy clusters and a growing medical device industry. Orlando’s 200 life sciences companies employ about 6,900 with an estimated payroll of more than $535 million.


» Founded in 1968 as Florida Technical University to graduate engineers to support Martin Marietta and the nation’s space program at Cape Canaveral, the University of Central Florida is Florida’s largest university with nearly 60,000 students and the second-largest university in the U.S. UCF remains fertile recruiting ground for the local high-tech industry. The military presence and the growth of UCF’s Research Park has also helped facilitate a number of centers of excellence at the university, including the Institute for Simulation and Training, the CREOL/College for Optics and Photonics and the Florida Solar Energy Center. The university attracts more than $110 million in research funding annually and was awarded 67 patents in 2012.

» Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute researchers are using an interdisciplinary approach to better understand the molecular causes of cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity to aid them in developing innovative therapies to treat such diseases.

» The Translational Research Institute for Metabolism and Diabetes, a joint venture between Florida Hospital and Sanford-Burnham, opened in 2012.

» Researchers at the Cancer Research Institute of MD Anderson Orlando are conducting cutting-edge research to develop therapies for pancreatic, kidney, head and neck, lung, breast and brain cancers.


» Maitland-based Digital Risk, which develops software that provides risk analysis, fraud detection and regulatory compliance for the mortgage industry, is one of central Florida’s fastest-growing high-tech businesses. The company, which employs 1,500, reported $127 million in revenue in 2012. The firm was recently acquired by an Indian subsidiary of Hewlett-Packard for $175 million.

» Financial software and services company Harland Financial Solutions in Lake Mary serves more than 6,000 financial institutions, including banks, mortgage companies, credit unions and thrifts.