Dream Team Retools Local Economic Engine
When Carol Ann Dykes Logue, Jerry Ross and Rob Panepinto get in the same room, the conversation flows naturally from one topic to another to another. These are people whose connections run wide and deep in business, government, academic and nonprofit organizations all over Central Florida and beyond. They have front-row seats to some of the most innovative work taking place in the region. And they are up to something.
They help lead an entrepreneurial support system that has been quietly undergoing a metamorphosis. It’s all part of a plan to strengthen the resources available for small businesses and at the same time create an ecosystem that propels high-growth innovation companies toward rapid expansion.
The key was in recognizing that those are two different groups of entrepreneurs with two distinct sets of needs, says Thad Seymour Jr., who became the long-term interim president of the University of Central Florida in March.
Seymour had been serving since July 2018 as the university’s vice president of partnerships and chief innovation officer, a position that had him diving deeper into the region’s business community to discover what makes it tick. He had already learned quite a bit about that in his 30 years as a business leader in Central Florida, including a stint as senior vice president at Tavistock Development Company, where he was one of the masterminds behind Lake Nona Medical City.
What he’s discovered has spurred him to appoint Logue, Ross and Panepinto to create a program designed to grow not just companies and jobs, but also ideas, talent and capital.
Seymour explains it this way: “A huge number of jobs get created through small businesses. Many of those will grow from one or two employees to 10 to 20 if they’re really successful. There’s a set of resources and work and focus to support those businesses.
“But if you’re talking about transforming an economy and diversifying it, you need to think in terms of high-growth-potential companies. The vast majority are either tech companies or tech-enabled in some way, and they have different needs. They have different talent needs, they’re funded differently, they need different kinds of mentors, different types of partnerships. We needed to align our programs to support those two different sectors.”
The strategy calls for expanding UCF’s eight-site business incubator program and dividing it by specialty. Logue and Panepinto are leading three “innovation districts” while Ross is linking several incubator sites and high-profile programs in a “regional entrepreneur network.”
The project has had the three of them spending a lot of time together, which they say has infused new energy into their work.
“There’s so much symbiosis between us,” Logue said. “There’s a core of things we all know, but we are so complementary in what we know and who we know, and our backgrounds and experience, that the composite makes up an amazing team.”
Research Park Innovation District
Logue, who has served as a UCF incubator site manager for 17 years, will continue to oversee the Central Florida Research Park incubator as well as the photonics incubator. She is now the director of the Research Park Innovation District, which includes the industry clusters of aviation and aerospace; modeling, simulation and training; defense; optics and photonics; advanced materials research; cybersecurity; robotics; machine learning and artificial intelligence; virtual and augmented reality; and solar power and energy.
The district also incorporates the Space Coast, where she is already at work strengthening ties to the companies and economic development organizations there. It’s a natural fit given UCF’s history with the space industry.
“A lot of people don’t remember that one of the reasons this university was even created back in the mid-1960s by the state Legislature was to support NASA in its original quest to meet President Kennedy’s mandate that we were going to send men to the moon, and NASA needing so much more scientific and technical talent,” she said.
The innovation districts will be looking to add programming that has not always been part of incubator offerings. For instance, they will foster “first customer” relationships that encourage larger organizations to adopt the products and services of emerging companies to give them a boost into commercial success.
Many of the existing companies at the Research Park incubator are funded by government contracts from the U.S. Department of Defense, NASA, the Department of Energy, the National Science Foundation and similar organizations, Logue said.
“Those agencies are very eager to get engaged with a broader segment of early stage companies,” she said. “Many of those companies have never thought of doing business with a government agency. They don’t know the first thing about it. They can’t even understand the language.
“One of the things I’m looking at putting in place is a boot camp that would help those companies, those that don’t have experience working in this sector, equipping them to have conversations with the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and NASA in particular.”
Downtown Innovation District
Seymour had brought in Panepinto to help with some of the broader strategy around the project and now has hired him to oversee a new Downtown Innovation District that is evolving along with the new joint UCF and Valencia College campus opening in downtown Orlando in August. The district will focus on industries that include digital media, gaming, simulation, smart cities, hospitality and financial technology.
Panepinto plans to hit the ground running in building the new downtown district, which includes the existing incubator on Colonial Drive. Later this year, there are plans to open an incubator in the core downtown area within StarterStudio, where UCF has an existing partnership. There are also discussions with several major corporations about opening “innovation centers” that would create opportunities for early stage companies, student interns and faculty members.
Panepinto is the president of Florentine Strategies, which provides board support, strategic consulting and investment capital for healthcare, social enterprise and technology companies. He is the CEO of Entrepreneurs in Action, which manages the EIA Social Venture Fund that invests in for-profit social enterprises. For almost 18 years, he was part of the management team that helped lead Orlando-based healthcare technology and service company Connextions from start-up to its acquisition in 2011 by OptumHealth, a UnitedHealth Group company.
Panepinto had served with Seymour on boards including that of the Orlando Economic Partnership. “We had conversations about how we create more high-wage jobs in our community, how we diversify our economy and how we create more opportunity for growth,” Panepinto said. “We’ve both long recognized that growing technology-driven early stage companies is an important part of solving that longstanding problem.”
Lake Nona Innovation District
Logue and Panepinto share responsibility for the Lake Nona Innovation District for now, which includes emerging clusters in health care, biosciences and medical technology. They are working closely with Tavistock and the Florida Blue-owned GuideWell Innovation Center, which offers office and meeting space for small businesses and houses UCF’s health sciences incubator.
They are planning a challenge event with GuideWell that involves using virtual and augmented reality to solve industry needs. A key goal of the challenge is to start linking the innovation districts to bring talent and customers across all of them together. “It’s a way for us to immediately begin engaging the Lake Nona community as well as the other districts,” Logue said. “And begin to build bridges across the three innovation districts.”
Regional Entrepreneur Network
As president of the National Entrepreneur Center in Orlando for the past 12 years, Ross has fostered relationships among groups that help small businesses start, grow and thrive. The NEC, located at Fashion Square Mall, houses 13 partner groups that include minority chambers of commerce, the Central Florida International Trade Office, small business counselors SCORE and the U.S. Department of Commerce.
Ross, an employee of UCF through the university’s sponsorship of the NEC, is helping to launch the Regional Entrepreneur Network, which includes mixed-use incubators in Apopka, Winter Springs, Kissimmee and Daytona Beach. The new strategy folds into the network the UCF-run Small Business Development Centers and GrowFL, which counsels second-stage companies.
“When you look at Central Florida,” he said, “we have led the nation in job creation for the last four years in a row. I speak all over the country, and people say, ‘What a surprise!’ and I say, ‘It’s not a surprise, it’s a strategy.’”
Ross says his background as an entrepreneur has helped him identify with the needs of people who are growing businesses in Central Florida. Putting all of the resources under one umbrella will help.
“There is no wrong door for someone to walk in. They can walk into the SBDC and get connected to the incubator, or they can walk into the incubator and get connected to GrowFL.
Many times, while that was available before, it wasn’t as accessible because all of them had different reporting structures.
“This is going to keep us at the front of the innovation economy,” Ross said. “We take this for granted because we’re here. When you go outside of Central Florida, they don’t talk to each other. It took the thought leadership of Dr. Seymour. He could have done nothing and we’d be OK. But to step forward and say ‘What’s the next step?’ takes us into innovation.”
The Next Steps
Creating places for entrepreneurs to work side by side is important because proximity matters, Seymour said. When they meet in “random collisions” and learn how they can work together, innovation happens.
“It doesn’t happen overnight, but over time we start to build this,” Seymour said. “If we were in Detroit or Pittsburgh or Cleveland, which all have pretty good innovation centers now, this would be easier. If you want to diversify your economy in the direction of tech-based or innovation-based companies, it’s easier to do there because there are declining markets in other sectors. Here, we have to outpace tourism, which doesn’t seem to be slowing down any.
“If you think of an economy as a pie chart, and innovation or tech as a slice of that, while the pie chart keeps growing because tourism and land development and other things will continue to grow here, it puts more pressure on us to do this well, which means we have to be smarter and deliberate and focused on the strategy.”
Seymour has a theory that Orlando is poised to lead the next big revolution, and UCF is in a perfect position to help make that happen.
“I’m a historian by training, so I can’t help but look back a little bit to look ahead,” he said. “If you look at the 19th century, that was New York’s century, with the rise of big cities, the industrial revolution, Atlantic migration and trade. It resulted in some incredible economic engines in dense cities like New York and Boston. New York dominated.
“The 20th century became California’s century. It was originally driven by agriculture but ultimately by technology at the end of the century.
“The question is, whose century is this one? I like Florida’s chances, and I believe Central Florida will lead us there.”
This article appears in the July 2019 issue of i4 BUSINESS.