History Informs the Vision: Dennis Pape
By Necole Pynn
Dennis Pape graduated with a PhD in physics from Duke University with the intention to become a professor, but there weren’t any slots available at the time. As an alternative, he started looking for similar jobs in private industry research. That step has led to many years of building and scaling companies, finding investments, and most recently, helping others do the same.
Pape started his career in Florida doing corporate research and development with Harris Corporation. “I really attribute Harris as being my business education,” Dennis says. “I was an engineer, but through my role at Harris, I started dealing with clients, writing proposals, giving presentations, and working on pricing.”
While at Harris, Pape learned about the SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) grants offered by the federal government. He noticed that there were a wide range of topics within his interest and experience, providing an opportunity for a new business in this area. It wasn’t long before he left Harris to start his first company, Photonic Systems.
“We all felt that there was as much going on in Florida as anywhere else. People who think that Central Florida hasn’t ever been a hotbed of start-up activity and funding don’t know the history. The area was a huge center for start-up activity in the 90s. We had NASA, Northrup Grumman, Lockheed Martin, and others developing new technology. Something like 70 percent of people working in tech in Florida were living in Central Florida at that time.”
Photonic Systems grew quickly, peaking at 18 or so employees. The company was awarded 17 Phase 1 SBIR grants, and eight Phase 2 grants. Depending on this one source of revenue wasn’t easy, though. Pape advises that start-ups going after these grants proceed with caution. “When you spend a lot of time pursuing grants, there’s a danger of the SBIR program becoming your entire business.”
It was partly for this reason that Pape shifted his focus from government grants back to research for a commercial market and joined Milcom Technologies in Orlando. He began seeking out defense research that could have a broad application and approached venture capitalists (VCs) to find out whether or not they’d be interested in funding the idea.
Milcom built 14 companies during this time, raising about $600 million for the ventures. It was the dot com boom, and investment was through the roof. One of the technologies he worked on was optics for computing. Electronics and optics were in competition, and no one knew which of the technologies would win. Electronics eventually won the race as they became cheaper and smaller at a faster rate.
Then in 2002 everything crashed. The venture capital dollars dried up overnight, and it was nearly impossible to find funding for new ideas. The business model Milcom had been using was no longer an option, so it was time to move on.
He started consulting in 2002 and worked with VCs, providing due diligence and analysis of potential deals. He also worked with start-ups, evaluating their business plans. Pape began attending Florida Venture Forum events and paying more attention to venture news. He noticed a lack of resources in Orlando, and set out to create them.
This resulted in Florida Venture Sourcing. He started an event called VenturePitch to provide a forum for start-ups to interact with and receive feedback from venture capitalists. He also started a newsletter to keep everyone up-to-date on funding news and make more people aware of the tech venture space.
All About Scaling
Most recently, Pape helped launch Catalyst, a co-working space in downtown Orlando, and started a program to help start-ups scale, called VentureScaleUp. He saw that the iCorps program at UCF was expanding and expressed an interest in becoming an affiliate. This led to an SBA grant to help fund the program, which has just launched as a pilot at Catalyst.
He says about the first class, “This is our MVP (minimum viable product) to figure out what these companies need. Ideally they have some revenue, a good team, and the ability to scale. Beyond Starter Studio, but not yet to GrowFL stage. These are the companies that would pitch at Venture Pitch. It’s all about scaling.”
Pape believes there’s a lot of potential in Orlando for companies that take advantage of the resources that exist. “Orlando can win if we bring to bear all the resources we have,” he explains. “We have Lake Nona, Disney, Universal, UCF, the world’s largest modeling and simulation cluster. We need to build on those resources.”