The Legacy and Future of Florida’s High Tech Corridor
By: Eric Wright
It can’t be described as the end of an era because the work Randy Berridge initiated is continuing unabated. Which is another testimony to the foresight of this visionary leader and evangelist of high tech development in Central Florida for over a quarter of a century.
His legacy, The Florida High Tech Corridor (or The Corridor), has been one of the most outstanding examples of what can happen when key stakeholders focus on what they can accomplish together, in a collaborative effort, instead of staying siloed within their own geographical box. The Corridor, now being led by another veteran of the state’s economic development efforts and one of Berridge’s closest colleagues, Ed Schons, is tasked with maintaining the momentum and focus.
Schons was a senior economic development policy manager for Florida Power Corporation back when the art and science of economic development was just coming into its own. He served as chair of the Florida Economic Development Council and continues, in addition to his role with The Corridor, as director of university economic development at UCF.
The Corridor is one of the principal economic development initiatives of the University of Central Florida (UCF), the University of South Florida (USF) and the University of Florida (UF). These institutions join with more than 25 local and regional economic development organizations, Florida Institute of Technology, Florida Polytechnic and 14 state and community colleges, along with numerous representatives of high tech industry.
The Corridor was founded over 20 years ago, with the initial objective to foster research and educational partnerships to retain a $1.4 billion, 1,500 job expansion from going offshore or relocating to another region. Berridge recalls the fortuitous crisis that gave genesis to the vision and the economic windfall that followed.
“UCF President John Hitt and then USF President Betty Castor made a commitment to AT&T, pledging the strength of the universities and actual financial resources, to help with the research the company needed,” Berridge explained. “That is where it all began, with Dr. Hitt and the alliances he forged with the other universities. Also, as he pondered the problem and possible solutions, he put forward the idea that this kind of research assistance shouldn’t be reserved to high profile, large corporations alone, but to smaller companies on the leading edge of innovation as well.”
The Corridor’s Matching Grants Research Program (MGRP) has been instrumental in advancing development and bringing leading edge technologies to market across the 23-county region, by targeting industries to stimulate high tech growth. The program aligns industrial resources and entrepreneurial initiatives of the region’s commercial partners with graduate level researchers and professors in Florida’s major research universities. According to Berridge, “To date, an investment of more than $65 million from the Corridor has facilitated relationships between the Corridor and universities and local businesses that have generated a regional economic impact of more than $1 billion.”
Those are the measurable, more tangible outcomes, but there are equally profound intangible impacts. These include nurturing the region’s collaborative spirt and fostering a level of partnership and knowledge sharing across industry and university lines that empowers both to develop solutions to global issues. From modeling and simulation; to advanced fiber optic communications; to treatments for cancer and debilitating pain; to microsatellites; the list goes on and on.
Berridge smiles when he says, “I have a favorite high tech phrase, ‘It takes a village to raise a high-tech corridor.’ I’m just honored to be one of the elders in that community. It has been a great team effort; with UCF, USF and UF along with some 400 volunteers each year, which make all of this possible.”
BRIDGing the Gap
The link between the brain trust that research universities possess and the companies that bring their findings to market can’t be over emphasized. The examples would fill volumes, but to cite just two:
Melissa Kuchma’s company Revolution Medicine arms patients with the data, based on her research in genetics, to be proactive in their health care. The company developed sophisticated algorithms to analyze each customer’s unique DNA profile and develops user-friendly reports that share which medications would be most or least effective. This founder and CEO earned her B.S. in chemistry at UF, before earning her Ph.D. from MIT and served at the NanoScience Technology Center at UCF and as an assistant professor and research scientist for what is now the UF Health Cancer Center-Orlando Health. Speaking of her experience, “I really got to see where the technology could be useful and impact patient’s lives.”
The second highlights everyone’s awareness of the world’s demand for fast, affordable data, which companies like Google, Amazon, and Netflix all store and transmit vast amounts of every day. UCF researcher Dr. Sasan Fathpour, an optics and photonics associate professor, has worked on developing smaller more efficient optical modulators for fiber optic transmission. Working with Partow Technologies in Orlando and using a grant from The Corridor, Fathpour has made significant advances. “The technology we are developing allows us to reduce costs significantly, while at the same time achieving higher functionality,” Payam Rabiei, CEO of Partow Technologies said.
The common denominator in all our efforts has been that an individual’s quality of life begins with a good job. At its foundation, that is what The Corridor has been focused on, creating more meaningful and high paying jobs, to diversify and bring opportunity to this economy.
Perhaps, the most far reaching example of The Corridor’s impact is the soon to be opened advanced manufacturing research center in Osceola County, known as BRIDG (Bridging the Innovation and Development Gap). President Hitt commented, “UCF is working closely with The Corridor, Osceola County and others to establish BRIDG. We will play a key role in developing, testing and manufacturing the next generation of advanced sensors and smart fiber technology.” The success of a project of this magnitude is a testament to the partnerships and groundwork The Corridor and its key leaders have made over the last 21 years.
Staying On Target
“Our mission statement was originally crafted by UCF’s Dan Holsenbeck, and we have actually modified it very little over the years. Originally, it was ‘To help our region attract and retain high tech industry and the workforce to support it,’” Berridge explained. “We refined it slightly, ‘To grow high tech industry and innovation through partnerships that support research, marketing, workforce and entrepreneurship.’ It is what we have done for these 21 years and what we will continue to do.”
The Corridor has helped facilitate the next step in the evolution of space flight and exploration, while also working to strengthen one of Florida’s most robust industries, financial services. Seeing the wave of entrepreneurial activity rolling over the state, it formed the Virtual Entrepreneur Center, to provide information, services and a relational link to entrepreneurs from Daytona to Tampa and all points north and south.
“The good news about this transition,” Schons said, “Is that I have been there from the beginning and have known Randy for over 30 years. I have witnessed the great things that have happened. The common denominator in all our efforts has been that an individual’s quality of life begins with a good job. All the other aspirations they have happen because of that one factor. At its foundation, that is what The Corridor has been focused on, creating more meaningful and high paying jobs, to diversify and bring opportunity to this economy. Frankly, Randy has been remarkable in that respect. I don’t have plans to alter or reinvent what he has done, but rather to keep us moving in the same direction.