Orlando should make better use of its technology assets to boost wages

The Orlando region was once the leading tech startup hub in Florida through the efforts of entrepreneurs who started companies that leveraged our technology and talent. Finding fertile ground here, venture capital came from outside the state and fueled high-growth entrepreneurs like Scott Moody and Steve Miller. Moody co-founded AuthenTec, whose fingerprint sensor is now in the iPhone through its $356 million acquisition by Apple. Miller co-founded Sawtek, whose RF filters are in most mobile phones, particularly after its $1.3 billion merger with TriQuint Semiconductor.

Despite the growth of our tech clusters and the University of Central Florida, one of our country’s largest research institutions, we have lost our position as the leading startup hub in Florida to Miami and Tampa. With companies like Sawtek being created here, in 1990 the Kauffman Foundation ranked the Orlando metro region No. 13 nationally and No. 1 in Florida in startup activity. In its 2010 report, we had dropped out of the top 20 metro areas — where we remain today.

Indeed, there are economic-development efforts here devoted to fostering an innovation economy. However, regional economic-development efforts have primarily been devoted to recruiting companies to move to Orlando and not entrepreneurial growth.

Both Orlando and Orange County have recently committed some resources to nurturing local tech startups, particularly in our downtown area. Most of these efforts, however, have supported entrepreneurs starting lifestyle and small, low-growth businesses. The basis of an innovation economy, and the real generators of tech jobs with high wages, are those startups that can scale and attract venture capital investment to fuel their growth. With few scaleups here, venture capital is mostly invested in other areas of Florida.

An example of what can happen when a startup leverages our technology assets is Luminar Technologies. Tapping into our unparalleled optics and photonics talent from both the private sector and UCF, Luminar has raised more than $36 million in investment capital and in a short period of time created more than 150 Orlando jobs, developing its advanced vision system for the autonomous vehicle market.

With scaleups like Luminar, the talented students graduating from UCF and Rollins do not have to leave the region for tech and tech-management jobs with significant salaries elsewhere.

Principles that have led to rapid growth of innovation clusters in cities with far less technology assets than ours, like Miami and New York, should guide our own economic development and entrepreneurial support efforts:

  • Expand our regional economic-development efforts to include an entrepreneurial growth strategy.
  • Focus less of our entrepreneurship support efforts on startups and more on scaleups.
  • Foster a tech ecosystem network that encourages high-growth entrepreneurship with collaboration among co-working spaces, incubators, accelerators, events, mentors, advisers and investors.
  • Inspire new entrepreneurs to start scaleups.
  • Encourage tech employees and university entrepreneurs to start scaleups that leverage our technology assets and UCF research.
  • Encourage successful high-growth entrepreneurs to mentor startups as they scale up.
  • Encourage previously successful entrepreneurs to create new scaleups.
  • Energize our investor community with scalable startup investment opportunities.

It is past time we focus our economic development and entrepreneurship support efforts on high-growth entrepreneurs and become proactive in the creation of scaleups. Doing so will go a long way toward rebalancing Orlando’s regional economy with high-wage tech jobs.

Originally published in the Orlando Sentinel.