Technology in Florida
The High Tech Corridor
A formidable array of higher-ed research, private research institutions and high-tech businesses lines Florida's I-4 corridor.
Embry-Riddle: An Anchor Tenant
With more than 5,000 students at its flagship campus, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach is overshadowed in Florida by larger public and private universities with significantly higher budgets, extensive research programs and public outreach.
The school’s profile, however, is much greater nationally and internationally — the undisputed dean of aviation and aerospace institutions of higher learning in the world, and the only fully accredited aviation-oriented university. With its Prescott, Ariz., campus and online students worldwide, Embry-Riddle has more than 30,000 students.
Founded in 1925, Embry- Riddle is the nation’s largest supplier of bachelor-degreed air-traffic controllers to the Federal Aviation Administration. It’s the sole provider of aviation degree programs to the U.S. military in Europe. And major airlines hire more graduates from Embry-Riddle than from any other university. The school’s aerospace engineering program is the largest in the nation. Six Embry-Riddle alumni are current or former astronauts.
Embry-Riddle President John Johnson, who is retiring later this year, says that while the school doesn’t have an intercollegiate athletic football program, it does have top professors from elite schools, a fleet of 88 instructional aircraft, 40 state-of-the-art simulators, a fast-growing campus infrastructure and a record of placing 90% of grads in jobs within a year at higher salaries that reflect surging demand for STEM-trained professionals.
Johnson has been named the school’s first president emeritus, and Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer John R. Watret was appointed interim president in late May.
Part of the school’s success is in its financial flexibility as a private institution, the ability to charge higher fees than public universities, pay higher salaries and make investments in new buildings and equipment faster and with less second-guessing. “We move at the speed of thought,” says Richard Heist, Embry- Riddle provost. When the school decided to build a new student center last year, it simply wrote a check for $70 million. The school has invested nearly $200 million in improvements and additions to its Daytona campus alone in less than a decade and is increasingly emphasizing research, adding the first building in what will become a research and technology park that’s slated to open in 2017. One effort has extended the range of drones by using autonomous boats that serve as charging stations for the drones, extending their range for search and rescue and marine research.
While Embry-Riddle is not formally a member of the Corridor, talks are under way to explore ways of increasing participation and coordination. “We are the anchor tenant on the eastern end” of the Corridor, Heist says.
High Tech, High Wage
With average pay of more than $80,000 a year, aerospace firms accounted for the most employees per tech company in the Corridor, averaging 104 per establishment.
The eastern end of the Corridor is anchored by the aerospace and aviation industry and scores of companies in related research and development. Along the Space Coast, from Titusville to Palm Bay, longtime fixtures like NASA, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman, Harris, Raytheon, Eaton and Aerosonic contribute to an estimated $1.2 billion worth of economic activity a year in the region. Virtually all of the leading rocket makers and related launch firms have significant operations in Brevard County, including NASA’s United Launch Alliance, Boeing, XCOR Aerospace and SpaceX, the rocket-maker and launch firm owned by billionaire Elon Musk. Other newcomers include Brazilian aircraft manufacturer Embraer.
Each of the three major public universities in the Corridor — UCF, UF and USF — support the space sector with highly rated engineering programs and research centers. Numerous other schools work with those universities in an alliance, called the Florida Space Institute, which includes the Space Coast-based Florida Institute of Technology, Eastern Florida State College and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
Other members of the Space Institute based outside the Corridor include Florida A&M University, the University of Miami, Florida Atlantic University and Broward College.
One example of the synergy between schools and startups is Hoverfly Technologies, developer of drones for commercial, industrial and personal use. Founded in 2010 by a trio of entrepreneurs headed by Alfred Ducharme, former assistant engineering professor and dean at UCF, the company in Winter Springs in Seminole County produced the industry’s first flight controllers for commercial multirotor drones.
Other Notable Companies
Prioria Robotics, Gainesville: The developer of small unmanned aircraft systems was started by UF grads. The company has won contracts from the U.S. Army totaling $4.5 million. CEO Bryan da Frota says the UAVs have applications in areas ranging from security to agriculture. Using fleets of smart, sensor-packed unmanned vehicles, da Frota says, “You can do things that are dull, dirty and dangerous.”
Matrix Composites, Rockledge: The Brevard County company is a key supplier to Lockheed Martin and other firms that need precision composite parts for everything from missiles to light aircraft. Since its founding in 1993, the company has branched out from aerospace and defense into medical and optics fields. It has also taken on other challenges, creating, for example, composite, life-like trees for theme parks in Asia.
Elevated Horizons, Orlando: The crowd-funded startup designs and manufactures longrange multirotor unmanned aerial systems for agriculture monitoring. It was one of three companies selected by Space Florida to conduct authorized unmanned craft demonstrations at Exploration Park in Brevard in 2014.
Altavian, Gainesville: Founded in 2011, Altavian provides engineering, manufacturing and operations services for unmanned craft, with specialties in highresolution mapping and real-time video capabilities with drones for everything from agriculture to conservation resource protection.
A number of incubators for small tech-related firms have sprung up around Florida, offering low-cost, flexible space and other services — a so-called “tech ecosystem” — to young software and information entrepreneurs.
One, in Orlando, has structured itself as a non-profit. Canvs (pronounced canvas) offers a month-to-month deal for space in a comfortable center with an open floor plan where, for as little as $100 a month, young entrepreneurs can interact as they try to build their businesses. Opened in 2014 in the Church Street Exchange downtown, Canvs already has more than 45 companies and organizations, including notable startups such as app developer Echo Interaction Group and Allogy Interactive. Florida Institute of Technology also recently opened a Women’s Business Center in Canvs, to increase the number of women entrepreneurs locally. In May, the University of Central Florida took a stronger leadership role at Canvs, placing the networking center’s staff on its payroll in preparation for eventually linking operations to the planned Creative Village and UCF downtown campus.
Meanwhile, in Clearwater, a new incubator recently opened to serve north Pinellas and help companies go from “seed stage to high growth.” The Technical Arts Facility for Innovation and Entrepreneurship has room for up to 40 people in an open portion of the iDatix offices.
Steve Allen, founder and CEO of iDatix, made space available on his company’s third floor for people with good ideas but not a lot of money. Cubicles rent for a few hundred bucks a month and include access to everything from a costly 3-D printer to a boardroom.
The proliferation of incubators is also being driven by public-private enterprises, such as the Greenhouse in St. Petersburg. A joint effort of the city and the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce, Greenhouse provides business counseling, training, networking and access to capital and credit for startups.
- The University of Central Florida Business Incubator network, with offices throughout the Corridor, was recently named the state’s first Soft Landings International Incubator. In the past four years, the center has attracted more than 20 companies to the Corridor from Europe, South America and elsewhere.
- The National Business Incubation Association, which relocated from Ohio to Orlando in 2014, is an umbrella organization for 900 members worldwide. The NBIA expanded its services after moving to Orlando, opening the Global Training Center for Business Incubation and Innovation in Central Florida Research Park.
- University of South Florida Research Park spans 112 acres at USF’s flagship campus in Tampa and focuses primarily on biotechnology, life sciences and entrepreneurship. The Tampa Bay Technology Incubator, located in the research park, includes a state-of-theart wet lab facility. One of its clients, Trash 2 Cash Energy, a spinoff from the University of South Florida, has won awards for developing a way to convert methane gas to a commercially viable liquid hydrocarbon for diesel fuel.
- Hillsborough County has launched its own service to promote entrepreneurship called the Economic Development Innovation Initiative, or ED12, to coordinate resources for attracting talent. ED12 also supports nonprofits with incubation, mentoring, networking and second-stage growth acceleration.
- The non-profit Tampa Bay WaVE supports more than 100 tech startups out of its FirstWaVE Venture Center in downtown Tampa, with 16,000 square feet of coworking space, mentors, access to venture capital sources and other services, including meetings and seminars.
- The Clearwater Technology Alliance, a group of technology executives and owners, was founded in 2012 to promote the fastgrowing cluster of companies branded as the Clearwater Technology District Downtown. The district boasts more than 50 software and IT companies.
- The Florida Economic Gardening Institute, or GrowFL, was created by the Legislature in 2009 and is the only statewide group focused exclusively on promoting what are known as second-stage growth companies. The institute is led by UCF’s Business Incubator founder Tom O’Neal, executive director, and Tammie Nemecek, director.
- The Sid Martin Biotechnology Incubator at the University of Florida is a pioneer in the state’s effort to spur development in the high-risk field, where 85% of startups typically fail early. Launched in 1990, the incubator has seen 86% of companies graduating from its program stay in business for more than five years. So far it’s garnered more than $1.2 billion in investments, contracts and grants.
- The Florida High Tech Corridor is the umbrella organization for the Corridor, celebrating its 20th anniversary, promoting hightech clusters across 23 of the state’s 67 counties. The Florida High Tech Corridor Council oversees the initiative, led by the three leading research institutions, UCF, USF and UF. In fiscal 2014, the council invested $10.8 million in economic development, research and other initiatives supporting the tech industry, including almost $5 million in its Matching Grants Research Program, which was matched by $11.4 million in cash and in-kind services from companies.