Dr. John Harris (left), Chair of Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at UF, with a team of student ambassadors.
Small Business in Florida
Gainesville has become a tech hub for engineering entrepreneurs
Most people think that engineers are smart, but boring. You know the stereotype -- they are the folks who speak in abstract terms, design complicated stuff, and carry fancy calculators around.
Or if you’re old enough to remember a time before cheap calculators, engineers lugged large bamboo slide rules everywhere.
I’m not sure this typecast of engineers was always true. It certainly isn’t today. The 21st century engineers I know are entrepreneurs moving at Internet light speeds.
Chances are an engineer is not only responsible for almost all the whiz-bang products and applications you use -- an engineer started the company that designed, manufactured, and is marketing it!
It’s simple really; engineers are the founders of many of the best new companies around. They and their incredible products are definitely not boring!
I went in search of how innovation starts and is nurtured into the stuff you use every day; products and services that save you and your business time, money, and headaches. Maybe even improve your selling and marketing efforts to make you money too.
Here in Florida there are many emerging pockets of entrepreneurial innovation. The Tampa Bay area is one, plus Orlando, the Space Coast, and there are others. Seems to me a lot of real entrepreneurial magic is happening in Gainesville – where many wonderful companies are being started by engineers.
Why Gainesville? I spent four days there recently to find out. Or to see if it was just the great marketing machine at the University of Florida (UF) churning out hyped publicity.
First a disclaimer: I have an engineering degree from the University of Florida, and not just any engineering degree. I somehow managed to get through a five year course of study in four years with an electrical engineering diploma in hand. Yes, I was one of those people who carried a bamboo slide rule.
Hey, I’m a columnist and allowed to be a bit biased. Yet, I put on my skeptics hat and went in search of answers. Aside from all the unsung heroes like Lee May, David Day, and Dan Rua that I spoke with, there is something fairly unique happening, particularly for a town the size of Gainesville. (More on these special people and others in follow-up columns.)
Let’s look at what is going on that makes Gainesville such a magnet for engineering entrepreneurs.
An entrepreneurial engineer gets a huge boost by being associated with the University of Florida. Going to the source is always the best place to get started, and in this case, it’s at the Electrical and Computer Engineering department (or ECE, named only Electrical Engineering in my day). ECE is part of UF’s Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering. Their motto is, “Powering the new engineer to transform the future”. The college of engineering has achieved five times the U.S. average of startups launched per research dollar invested, and ECE is where much of the action is. Dr. John Harris is the ECE department chair and he showed me why this isn’t your father’s engineering program. Most of us don’t fully appreciate that many of the things you touch, sit in, watch, and listen to -- smartphones, cars, surgical robotics, DVD players, cloud backup services, airplanes, and even electric guitars -- are on the market because of electrical and computer engineers. Sure, other types of engineers help too and sometimes get all the glory, but to my thinking, the real stars are ECEs. (I can hear the screams of foul now!)
Engineers become salespeople, CEOs, marketers, attorneys, and entrepreneurs too. Dr. Harris said, “It’s amazing how many of our graduates have successful business careers outside of electrical and computer engineering. Yet, it’s no surprise. To a person they tell me that the discipline and focus of engineering together with business is a very powerful combination.” Dr. Harris feels that a mix of dissimilar backgrounds along with diverse teams is what fuels innovation. In an interesting twist, Dr. Harris pointed to Dr. Kent Fuchs, President of UF, who also has a background in electrical engineering!
ECE and the rest of the college began to encourage a new kind of thinking several years ago and put the programs in place to turn it into reality; such as starting the UF Engineering Innovation Institute. The result has been an explosion of entrepreneurial cultural on campus and in Gainesville. Dr. Harris pointed out, “The proof is in how many ECE graduates have gone on to build great companies here in Gainesville.”
How the Chief Parakeet took “Hogtown” by storm. Amir Rubin is one of the ECE students that Dr. Harris talked about. When Amir graduated from UF he decided to stick around “Hogtown,” the early 19th-century settlement now dubbed Gainesville. Amir says he stayed because, “My options were a big tech hub where I’d feel disconnected from the community or a small college town where the entrepreneurial spirit had taken hold and connections were plentiful.” In 2003 before graduating he started Prioria Robotics, a developer of small aerial drones, with two friends. Then in 2009 it was time to try other ideas out for size. After consulting for a while and working for another Gainesville based startup team passionate about improving healthcare education, Shadow Health, he co-founded Paracosm in 2013. Amir and his team at Paracosm are on a mission to 3D-ify the world by scanning it. They’ve collaborated with the likes of Google and are now big enough to have remote employees in Silicon Valley. “Gainesville is my home and our headquarters.” Amir added, “ECE prepared me to build stuff and learn product development, basically lots of hands-on work to figure out how to make things work.” Oh, a large stuffed space parakeet mascot sits in his office wearing a rare Stetson hat he won vying for $2,500 in a pitch contest around the time he started Paracosm. “It was really the hat I wanted.”
Why Gainesville is good for startups: Augi Lye started out majoring in music at UF and quickly discovered he was bored. Then one day it occurred to Augi that engineering was a natural fit for his interests and he ended up with dual degrees in computer engineering and electrical engineering. When he graduated from UF in 2006 he met Amir Rubin who enticed Augi to join Prioria Robotics as the fourth person in the company. Back then they were literally based out of a garage. Augi said, “This is how Apple started and I immediately got it.” He joined them for a lot less than Silicon Valley companies were offering him. “Working for Amir opened my eyes to the possibilities of starting a company”, and then added, “That’s where I learned how to run an early stage business.”
Augi has since gone on to start two companies -- ToneRite which invented a device to accelerate the break-in period of string instruments and Trendy Entertainment, a gaming company that produced Dungeon Defenders, which climbed to the top of the sales charts. In 2013 Augi was the recipient of the UF’s Outstanding Young Alumni Awards.
Every great business technology hub has four traits. When asked, why Gainesville for startups, Augi quickly lists the reasons; “All the top tech hubs have a large number of intelligent people and a high population density, just like Gainesville. The third ingredient is venture capital, and although we don’t have Silicon Valley type money, our ability to attract outside and local investors is rapidly rising. The fourth ingredient is our low cost of living and it’s a big advantage. The running joke here is what do you call someone who makes $40,000 in Gainesville? A millionaire!”
It’s now cool to be an engineer. Better yet, an engineer in Gainesville that starts a cool company, like Amir and Augi have. That combination of technical and business savvy make this new breed of entrepreneurs “full stack” leaders.
Engineering is more than just coding software or designing circuits -- it’s all about understand the challenges humans have and then coming up with an efficient and cost-effective solution using technology.
But, these entrepreneurs can’t do it by themselves. There is a network of people and their organizations that care deeply about supporting entrepreneurs in various ways. This is what really what makes Gainesville so special for startups.
Stay tuned. In future columns I’ll write about these unsung heroes.
Ron Stein is President of FastPath Marketing (www.marketing-strategies-guide.com) and the author of the Rapid Impact Marketing & Selling Playbook. As a speaker, coach, and consultant he works with small business owners helping them to accelerate the path between their vision and the actions needed to reach, win, and keep customers. Ron is the creator of the FastPath to More Customers Now! 7-step marketing system based on more than twenty years as a successful business owner, corporate CEO, business development executive, and salesman. He is also a mentor at two nationally recognized business accelerators. Ron offers one-on-one and small group mentoring, conducts seminars, and consults. He can be reached at 727-398-1855 or Ron@FastPathMarketing.com.