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High Tech

Orlando is making a name for itself in the technology industry, proving it’s not just a Mickey Mouse town.

Orlando may seem synonymous with theme parks—after all, it’s the epicenter of Walt Disney World, Sea World and Universal Studios. However, as of late, Orlando is quietly becoming the epicenter of something bigger, as seen by its recent No. 6 ranking by Time in its “20 Hottest Cities for Tech Jobs Now” listing.

By the numbers, Orlando’s growth in tech jobs year-over-year can be chalked up to 149 percent, according to Time’s findings via ZipRecruiter, and keeps good company with fellow tech metro cities in Atlanta, California and New York. It’s also worth noting how much the state’s technology industry has grown in the last year.

“Florida’s technology industry added more than 12,000 jobs in 2017, ranking the state fourth nationwide when it comes to year-over-year job growth,” explains Victoria Lauren, managing director and CEO of Arrow Sky Media, which specializes in animation and game development and recently announced its relocation from Nashville to Orlando as its international headquarters. “The state of Florida offers the perfect combination of business climate, resources and talent pools from leading engineering and digital media schools in the nation.”

To date, the state is home to over 2,300 companies that are helping shape the economy, according to Sheena Fowler, senior director of marketing and communications for the Orlando Economic Partnership. “From Electronic Arts creating some of the world’s most popular digital games to Luminar creating technology that will power cars of the future, Orlando has a wide range of tech sectors that include simulation, game development, VR/AR/MR, SaaS (Software as a Service), advanced manufacturing and experience design, just to name a few.”

So how is Florida keeping up with its fellow tech behemoths? Orlando Family Magazine spoke with key players and local startups that are helping make an impact in the states’ tech sector.

The Educational Supply
The tech sector has been nurtured by local institutions, incubators and of course, the tech community itself. To start, the University of Central Florida (UCF) launched its very first Coding Boot Camp in March 2016, and since then, has seen nearly 500 working adults graduate, many of whom have moved on to work at Fortune 500 companies including Disney, Deloitte and Lockheed Martin.

“We’ve been able to give adults from all backgrounds and experience levels a pathway into the tech industry,” explains Todd Freece, executive director, division of continuing education at UCF. “At the same time, our program helps to fill the quickly growing need for job-ready tech talent here in Central Florida.

“The UCF Coding Boot Camp is designed to give working adults here in Orlando the hard and soft skills to pursue rewarding tech careers. The program is powered by Trilogy Education, a workforce accelerator that connects top universities, employers and working adults to bridge regional hiring gaps.”

While a degree is not required to participate in the boot camp, Freece explains 80 percent of its participants have a bachelor’s degree. Additionally, the boot camp runs a 24-week part-time program, in addition to an intensive 12-week full-time program to meet the needs of its students.

Beyond UCF, Arrow Sky Media’s Lauren adds there are pools of talent surrounding the area, thanks to both UCF and other neighboring universities. “In addition to UCF, there is also Florida Polytechnic University nearby. The motivation to create innovation in Central Florida is growing, with BRIDG (GoBridg.com) leading the way in neighboring Osceola County with powerful partners and allies uniting.”

Moreover, StarterStudio—a nonprofit 501(c)(3) offering a variety of resources to local entrepreneurs and tech startups—has been playing a key role in helping launch new tech companies in the area.

Now with its collaborative workshops in three locations throughout the area—Parramore, downtown Orlando and Winter Park—StarterStudio arms entrepreneurs with free extensive programming including Founders Talks, workshops and its Ask-Me-Anything hours with business attorneys, accountants and more professionals. Additionally, StarterStudio also offers two business accelerator programs: one for idea stage startups and one for established seed-stage companies; and direct funding of startups in the seed-stage accelerator.

“We help in two important ways. One is, of course, providing workspaces, programs, accelerators and funding that help young tech companies to establish themselves and grow,” explains Executive Director Donna Mackenzie. “The other is more intangible and involves the collaboration, connection—community—that we supply our tech startups.

“Whether it comes from working in one of our spaces and finding a neighbor who has a solution for a coding question, or the support networks that grow within our accelerator teams, or a business referral from one of our many startup mentors and coaches, community is key,” Mackenzie adds.

StarterStudio also credits universities for supplying the industry with well-trained coders and engineers to meet the demand of the state’s key tech areas. Currently, those include laser and photonics, gaming and simulation, sensor technology, augmented and virtual reality, and commercial space travel.

“We are seeing more startups,” states Mackenzie. “Applications for our two accelerators always surpass our expectations and we receive regular requests to bring our lean-startups curriculum and other programming to other locations and other audiences. We are not alone; more accelerators already exist or are being established as well as additional sources of early-stage funding.”

A Community in Demand
Orlando’s tech community is really what drives this budding industry, and Fattmerchant stands as a prime example of what happens when the community works together. The flat-fee credit card processing platform is actually a graduate of StarterStudio, which also made a conscious effort to choose local vendors, whether it be its marketing or telecommunications company.

“[There are] a lot of great organizations in the local area that we work and partner with—whether they’re startups or not,” explains Jacques Fu, chief technology officer and co-founder of Fattmerchant. “They make sure to be involved in the community so that when you need something, whether it’s [an] investment or a partnership of some kind that enhances what you’re doing, those incubators will provide you with those connections and make those introductions.”

He adds that the community is an important asset for startups, as organizations like Orlando Coworking Alliance cultivate networking opportunities, as seen by its recent Orlando Coworking Week, as well as Orlando Devs—a recently formed 501(c)(3) nonprofit and the largest meetup for developers in the state, offering networking events as well—where Fu is the co-founder and current board member.

StarterStudio also shares the value of working with neighboring companies, as it’s personally supported by local organizations including UCF, Withum, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Foley & Lardner, Greenberg Traurig, Fairwinds, SunTrust and Entrenext, among others. “Some of our sponsoring organizations will even have a professional from their firm, say an accountant or attorney, work inside our space and offer office hours on certain days,” explains Mackenzie.

At UCF’s boot camp, Freece also credits local employers and recruiters who spur the success of the program. “[They] are invited into class for project demo days to see the work the students are doing. The classes also feature tech talks where local entrepreneurs, CTOs, alumni and recruiters come to class, network with the students and discuss the local digital/tech landscape.

“In addition to classroom instruction, each program includes career-planning services, portfolio reviews, employer events and about 20 hours a week on outside projects and experiential learning activities,” adds Freece. “These activities ensure that students develop critical soft skills like collaboration, communication and conflict resolution, alongside their tech abilities.

“Companies that are currently working with the UCF incubator have hired graduates of the UCF Coding Boot Camp,” he adds. “We can offer them talent when these companies pursue initiatives that require full stack web developers to grow and succeed.”

Spurring Success
As tech startups look ahead, it’s clear the state’s universities, incubators and more are laying the groundwork for even more success.

“The main thing is the quality of the startups are getting better every year and I think that’s the most important,” says Fu, who notes Fattmerchant recently expanded to Atlanta. “It’s not the number of startups, it’s how many actually grow and stick around and invest in the local area, hire people, grow business here and that spurs more economic activity,” he adds. “The quality has definitely been ramping up.”

Arrow Sky Media, whose sights are set on advancing digital technology, sees a promising future in its new home of Orlando. As of press time, the company is still in the relocation process as it’s moving to downtown’s Creative Village, which is transforming into a tech industrial hub.

“Arrow Sky Media sees a long-term and productive future in Orlando as resources and the drive to innovate continue to increase every year,” says Lauren. “There were several factors in the decision to move to Orlando. We are an environmental media company and share the same vision with the City of Orlando for a 100 percent sustainable future.

“It was the like-mindedness and collaboration efforts with so many people and organizations in Orlando that inspired our decision to move the headquarters here. From an outlook on growth over the next several years, it was the vast talent pool of digital media arts students in the region.” Yet, with all the growth, there’s still a lot of work to do. “The only improvement in my eyes is to have more technology-focused investment banks in the state of Florida, which is where Silicon Valley has the strongest leverage in the tech industry,” adds Lauren.

For StarterStudio, which expects to see more companies in its accelerators, programming and funding for startups, it believes the community is the biggest team player. “Our tagline is ‘start here, grow here, stay here.’ At the end of the day, that’s what all of our efforts are about,” says Mackenzie. “Helping entrepreneurs to begin their journey here, learn how to scale and get funded here, and stay here to keep local talent local.”

“You can expect to see more success from Orlando-based tech companies,” adds Fowler. “There is an innovative momentum that is fueling our economy and that sets the stage for great companies to take the spotlight.”

This article originally appeared in Orlando Family Magazine’s July 2018 issue.