By: Jack Roth
Jim Thomas, CEO of the Orlando Tech Association and executive director of the Orlando Regional Chamber of Commerce, is bringing people and companies together in order to ensure Central Florida’s future growth and prosperity.
Central Florida is home to a well-established $14 billion technology industry and a rapidly-growing collection of innovative startups that are pushing boundaries and finding new ways to solve problems. The future of the region is being shaped today, and companies, civil entities, nonprofits and educational institutions are collaborating to develop educational programs, create workspaces, start incubator and accelerator programs, and build the infrastructure that will propel the region’s tech industry to success on an international scale.
One of the individuals at the center of all of this is Jim Thomas, executive director of the Orlando Regional Chamber of Commerce (Orlando Inc.) and CEO of the Orlando Tech Association (OTA). As a conduit between businesses and innovators, he is a strong advocate for collaboration and a leading voice for why Central Florida is a great place to live and work.
“I first started going to the OTA about five years ago when it was just getting started,” said Thomas. “I see my role within the organization as a bridge builder and innovator. I truly enjoy connecting people and businesses that are the right fit for each other but somehow haven’t met yet.”
The Orlando Tech Association is a leader in growing the region’s tech ecosystem by advocating for the tech community and inspiring collaboration between established businesses and startups. Thomas sees his roles as both CEO of the Orlando Tech Association and executive director of Orlando Inc. as harmonious. “In both instances, I’m bringing the traditional business community and the tech community closer together,” he explained. “There shouldn’t be any divide between the two, and we’re constantly working to narrow that gap. We need to be focused on these growing and emerging technologies and make sure our business community takes advantage of this innovation.”
Thomas acts as a communications bridge between innovative startups and the established business community. One, he says, needs the innovation; the other needs clients. “The goal is to make practical applications out of these emerging technologies,” he added. “Traditional businesses understand the challenges and market problems companies come up against, and new technologies can solve these problems.”
Collaboration and Networking
Central Florida has established itself as a major tech hub. Forward-thinking individuals are driving progress in autonomous transportation, commercial space travel, augmented and virtual reality, photonics, simulation, health and wellness, gaming and nanotechnology. The growth occurring within these particular sectors gives the region unlimited potential. To ensure this potential is met, Thomas is constantly encouraging collaboration and creating business networks.
Hosted by Orlando Inc. in collaboration with the OTA, Innovate Orlando is a week of community-generated programming geared towards celebrating technological advancements in the region. This year’s activities include speakers, workshops and meet ups, as well as two tours of innovative technology communities including an inside look at BRIDG (Bridging the Innovation Development Gap) consortium in Osceola County and the Space Coast. Highlighting the week is Innovation Academy, a one-day event that connects a collection of Central Florida’s top 200 business members and graduating seniors from high schools in the region.
The OTA also has an educational series, speed-networking opportunities and demo/pitch nights in the works. Additionally, the organization’s monthly tech meet up draws 100 to 200 attendees from diverse technical backgrounds.
“We want to make sure regional businesses are taking advantage of technology transfer and Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants. It’s about collaboration, not competition.”
– Jim Thomas
“The OTA is increasing its collaboration with local entities, including the Chamber and the Orlando Economic Partnership to help attract and retain tech companies,” said Thomas. “The more visibility we can give to burgeoning companies and thriving industry verticals, the easier it will be to attract similar businesses and grow industry clusters.”
The Silicon Valley Connection
Thomas, a California native, still has many contacts and friends in Silicon Valley, which he feels is a natural partner for Central Florida. He believes that for Silicon Valley companies, it makes sense for them to have their operations and workforce here because it is more affordable. Central Florida makes the entire east coast of the United States extremely accessible, not to mention South America and Europe. And from Orlando, California is an easy direct flight away.
“Orlando acts as a pressure relief valve for both talent and housing,” explained Thomas. “It makes more sense to hold the talent here in Central Florida. Between quality of life and cost of living, there’s no comparison.”
He notes that homes in Silicon Valley are ridiculously expensive and average over $1 million. Traffic is also a nightmare in California, and this is where Central Florida can be of service to these Silicon Valley entities. “When I go out there and talk to these people, they realize I’ve experienced both places and know what I’m talking about,” he added. “By having a base of operations in Central Florida, it allows Silicon Valley companies to recruit a workforce that can actually set down roots and buy homes in a great region with ideal weather, an abundance of outdoor activities and high quality of life.”
Recently, Thomas held discussions with NASA representatives from Kennedy Space Center (KSC) and talked about how to get NASA more involved in the Orlando business community. As a result, technology groups have been out to meet with NASA research teams and introductions were made at NASA Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. Thomas has had multiple meetings at Ames that have furthered the conversation around building a stronger connection between NASA Ames Research Center and KSC.
“It’s about how we can work together and have innovative conversations,” he said. “We’re a natural fit for Silicon Valley and Ames Research Center. We’re the leaders in modeling and simulation, as well as optics and other technology areas. We want to make sure regional businesses are taking advantage of technology transfer and Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants. It’s about collaboration, not competition.”
What Thomas loves the most about the Orlando Tech Association is the same as what he loves about Central Florida – its people. He boasts that the region has a fantastic collection of smart and genuinely caring people, and that makes putting in the extra hours always seem worth it to him. Of all the grand challenges society faces these days, he believes Orlando and Central Florida are up to the task of solving them.
“It’s about branding,” he stressed. “We need to make people see that our region is a technology hotbed and a great place to both live and work. Doing this will set us up for future growth.”
Thomas admits he landed here for these reasons – proximity to assets, quality of life, cost of living, industry sector potential and more. He also believes the future growth of this region as an international technology giant is beyond bright, but we have to continue to tell the other half of our story. Yes, we are a great vacation destination, but we are also all of these other great things.
“We’re well placed, but we have to tell people who we are and stay focused on new technologies and their real-world applications,” he said. “As a west coast guy, I had to be shown how great it is here from a technology perspective, so now my goal is to show other people the same thing.”
“It makes more sense to hold the talent here in Central Florida. Between quality of life and cost of living, there’s no comparison.”
– Jim Thomas