Florida's regional hubs foster next-gen innovation | Crain's Orlando

Florida's regional hubs foster next-gen innovation

Florida's history as an innovation hub includes such modern-day breakthroughs as air conditioning, Gatorade and even the first smart phone. And while the rest of the nation may think of the state as theme-park central, technology insiders know better.

Florida International University in Miami just announced its new internet of things degree, the first in the U.S. In Orlando, the University of Central Florida’s video-gaming program is ranked top in North America. And Miami Beach recently hosted the fourth annual eMerge Americas technology conference featuring keynotes by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, rap star – and Florida tourism pitchman – Pitbull, and baseball superstar/“Shark Tank” investor Alex Rodriguez.   

Public and private entities, as well as nonprofits and investors throughout the state, are collaborating to further Florida’s rich legacy via innovative initiatives designed with technological advancement in mind. The grandfather of them all, the Florida High Tech Corridor Council, known as The Corridor, was formed in 1996 to grow high-tech industry and innovation through partnerships that support research, marketing, workforce development and entrepreneurship in a 23-county region. That’s just over one-third of the state’s total. 

The Corridor is a joint initiative of three research universities – UCF, University of South Florida and the University of Florida. Over the past two decades, it’s partnered with more than 360 companies on more than 1,400 research projects in sectors ranging from agri-technology to sustainable energy, investing more than $65 million in funds that were matched by corporate cash and in-kind investments of $182 million, generating an additional $900 million downstream.

“We’re always working with partners to identify opportunities to position our region, and Florida, as a global competitor in technology, with an emphasis on several key industries,” said Ed Schons, president of The Corridor, who cites Central Florida’s new BRIDG (Bridging the Innovation Development Gap) consortium project as the latest example.

Bridging the gap

Florida Advanced Manufacturing Research Center, now called BRIDG, is a collaborative effort by The Corridor, UCF, Osceola County, Enterprise Florida, the Orlando Economic Partnership and others. It's the world’s first industry-friendly, smart-sensor consortium. With an emphasis on the “D” portion of R&D, BRIDG offers companies both clean-room infrastructure and high-volume manufacturing capability for advanced smart sensor technologies like imagers, advanced devices, and 2.5-D/3-D chip integration.

Now that the $70 million, 100,000-square-foot research facility is up and running, plans are in the works for a surrounding 482-acre, high-tech campus called NeoCity. The master plan, recently introduced by Osceola County commissioners, calls for dozens of solar-powered buildings along streets used by driverless cars, with the goal of attracting companies focused on high-tech research like those already onboard at BRIDG, including Harris Corp. and Belgian-U.S. nanoelectronic firm Imec. BRIDG itself is projected to bring 5,000 direct jobs over the next decade. 

BRIDG/NeoCity is just one aspect of Central Florida’s movement toward cultivating tech-focused subcultures that are expected to one day rival the region’s thriving tourism economy. UCF, an early adopter of research commercialization partnerships with business, has been central to cultivating several specialty innovation hubs – and to enlisting multiple high-value partners along the way.

For example, the new $1 billion Creative Village is a 68-acre master-planned development near downtown that will include housing, retail and public amenities, right next to the university's new downtown campus and home of its Center for Emerging Media. The development – which reflects a larger trend toward urban innovation districts – will rest atop the site of the city's old basketball arena. It will integrate affordable and market-rate housing with new office space for high-tech, digital media and creative companies.

In contrast to traditional research parks populated by adjacent corporate buildings, Creative Village has been designed to enhance the creative ecosystem, said UCF's downtown Vice Provost Thad Seymour, Jr. The development draws together students, entrepreneurs, researchers and other businesses with formal and informal networks. “It sounds like a cliche, but it really captures the idea of a cluster model, where great ideas are inspired ... over a cup of coffee.”

The $60 million first phase – the Dr. Phillips Academic Commons – is projected to have a $205 million economic impact, with the surrounding village eventually drawing in $431 million in investments. Downtown Orlando’s urban landscape is expected to be reshaped by the massive project, whose collaborators and partners include UCF and Valencia College, the city of Orlando, state and federal agencies, and local public and private companies like Ustler Development.

Connected cities

Over in Pasco County, a new “connected city” called Epperson is now in development just north of Wesley Chapel by Tampa-based Metro Development Group, in partnership with Pasco Economic Development Council and US Ignite. A nonprofit that fosters the creation of next-generation internet applications, US Ignite is working with the developer to share best practices in using gigabit technology to recruit innovative tech-focused companies to the area – and the healthcare sector in particular.

Already local healthcare institutions like Florida Hospital and Tampa General Hospital, operating together as West Florida Health, are planning cutting-edge medical services and facilities for the district. The 10-year master plan includes advanced research facilities, a med-spa and performance institute, and high-tech, at-home health options.

South Florida’s startup ecosystem is similarly flourishing. According to noted urbanist Richard Florida’s think tank, Creative Class Group, Miami’s creative economy is 11th in the nation and the largest in Florida, with 682,000 workers. It trails other leading creative-sector cities, however, based on the share of knowledge, tech and arts workers. So investors and community business leaders are looking to spur the region’s creative renaissance by growing its media cluster, along with its export-import, healthcare, high tech, finance and wealth management sectors.

One major player, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, is headquartered in Miami, where it has invested heavily in South Florida's high-tech innovation ecosystem in recent years. Since 2012, the foundation has funneled more than $25 million into 200 area high-tech organizations and projects, including Endeavor Miami, Miami Dade College’s Idea Center, Startupbootcamp, The LAB Miami and Launch Code.

The foundation recently pledged $1.2 million to the soon-to-be-launched Miami Urban Future Initiative, a joint project of Florida International University and the Creative Class Group to fuel “insights and strategy for growing a stronger, more innovative and more inclusive economy for the Miami region spanning Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.” The project is in partnership with the university's College of Communication, Architecture + The Arts and located at its expansive Mana Wynwood facility in Miami’s eastern corridor.

The programs have one thing in common, says Knight's Miami Program Director Matt Haggman. They prioritize putting entrepreneurs face-to-face with existing businesses and helping “close gaps that still exist in our startup ecosystem by helping entrepreneurs foster relationships with business players and find the funding they need to scale and grow.”

July 18, 2017 - 4:28am