People and Companies Up Close

Up Close with Paul Sohl

Paul Sohl was named CEO of the Florida High Tech Corridor (The Corridor) in June 2020, taking the helm at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. That timing didn’t stop him from branching out throughout the region, absorbing information about technology sectors in the 23 counties spanning Central Florida. His travels have taken him from the University of Florida (UF) in Gainesville to the University of Central Florida (UCF) in Orlando to the University of South Florida (USF) in Tampa and beyond.

As a 33-year veteran of the U.S. Navy, Sohl brings to the position a  career that has included an emphasis on aviation and modeling, simulation and training. In just two years, he has already left a lasting impression on The  Corridor. Among other initiatives pursued under his leadership, The Corridor team partnered with Orange County government in February 2021 to launch Cenfluence. Its mission is to bring businesses and support organizations together in a formal cluster structure that will accelerate industry sector growth and, as a result, strengthen the regional economy. Initially, the effort focuses on four industry sectors: Energy + Environmental Sciences; Gaming, Entertainment + eSports; Life Sciences; and Learning Sciences + Human Performance.

What did you want to be when you were a little kid?

I wanted to be a pilot from the minute I saw a plane land at the airport. As a kid, I used to draw pictures of planes, and a friend of mine in fourth grade and I even created a cockpit out of spare stuff from my dad’s workshop that we used to “fly around” in our heads. Perhaps that’s where I first saw the value of simulation.

You had a career in the Navy that spanned more than 33 years, most recently as commander of the Operational Test & Evaluation Force based in Norfolk, Virginia. Can you share the story of how you first went into the military?

Initially, I set out to be a commercial pilot. I heard joining the U.S. Air Force was a sure way to reach that goal, so I applied for an Air Force ROTC scholarship in hopes of going that route. I was committed to becoming a pilot in the Air Force until my dad and I traveled to MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) for a campus tour. While we were visiting, I met a Naval aviator in a leather flight jacket (six years before Tom Cruise and Top Gun, by the way) and he showed me a VHS tape of Navy planes and aircraft carriers. That’s when I learned you could be a pilot in the Navy, and I was hooked.

Who were your greatest influences in the Navy —those who made you stay with it as a career?

My greatest influence was my dad, who today is 93 years old. The first thing we did in Navy ROTC at MIT was go through boot camp. I was scared out of my socks by the Marine staff sergeant. Think of every movie scene you’ve watched about boot camp, and that was exactly my experience. I thought I had made a huge mistake. I told the Marine captain in charge of MIT’s ROTC boot camp that I didn’t belong, and he called my dad, who urged me to keep going. I stuck with it for two weeks, really out of spite for my dad. Of course, I ended up loving it.

Other influences include my first set of squadronmates and my first commanding officer – really, all the people you meet along the way. I met so many selfless leaders and aspired to be like them. Later in my career, I was increasingly inspired by the energy and enthusiasm of younger sailors and Marines. 

Another thing that kept me going was the constant call to take on responsibilities outside my comfort zone. It kept things interesting. And, of course, living my dream of being a jet pilot was also a big draw. It’s just fun!

You held several posts while you were in the service,and you spent some time in Jacksonville. What kind of impression did you have of Florida then?

I was stationed in Jacksonville for four years. Our kids were in grade school then and, in all four years, we hardly ever left the state for family vacations. There were just so many things to do. We loved it. When it was time for us to move again, my wife, Kat, told me she had a feeling we would be back someday, and I’m so glad she was right. Little did we know, there was a whole other side of Florida that we hadn’t even been introduced to yet.

You said your wife wanted to come back to Florida after you retired. How did that conversation go, and how did she persuade you?

It wasn’t until I retired from the Navy when I really took the time to learn about the abundance of opportunities in Florida, especially in the world of high-tech innovation. Everyone I met reinforced the openness of this community and the special culture of collaboration here. It quickly topped our list of possible locations for the next chapter.

Once I accepted my new role with The Corridor, I think it took Kat about two seconds to get on Zillow and look for a house. She and the kids have always been supportive of the move to Florida. They know this role allows me to do two things I love: learn and give back. In the world of high-tech, it’s impossible NOT to learn something new every day and apply those learnings to create meaningful connections or drive innovation that makes a difference for our community.

You formed BackFin Partners when you retired. What was your objective with the consultancy, and how did that work out?

The best advice I received when retiring from the Navy was to not rush the journey. Starting BackFin Partners allowed me to be a consultant and continue contributing to the important defense mission of the military and its industry partners, while taking the time to explore long-term opportunities. It also exposed me to other sides of industry and education I hadn’t been as familiar with before. I wasn’t ready to make a commitment to one organization until I learned more about the Florida High Tech Corridor.

Talk about how you came to be named CEO of The Corridor and what it means to you.

Initially, when I got the call about The Corridor, I was a little scared. It’s a big responsibility and I was hired right at the beginning of the pandemic. But I was also confident enough to apply what I learned in the Navy about relentless curiosity, and a desire to first listen and learn before taking the lead.  My first six months were dedicated largely to a “listening tour,” including a series of conversations with key stakeholders from all corners of the region. In some ways, that journey has never ended. My idea of entrepreneurship and innovation, and the role of higher education in economic development, looks a lot different today than it did two years ago – and it’s constantly evolving. I try to enter every conversation with an open mind, and that approach has led to continual learning about our region and what makes its innovation ecosystem unique.

I get out of bed every day excited to continue the important work of The Corridor. It’s great to be here at this time in the organization’s evolution and have the chance to work with such an amazingly talented team and dedicated, collaborative partners. Together, we are forging a new vision for the region’s future.

You’ve been all over the state since taking the helm at The Corridor. What has impressed you most about the business landscape in Florida? 

I used to regularly attend the Interservice/Industry Training, Simulation and Education Conference (I/ITSEC) in Orlando for the Navy, so I knew about the depth of Florida’s tech industry, especially in modeling, simulation and training. Now I know that what I saw at I/ITSEC was just the tip of the iceberg. The breadth of technology in The Corridor is incredible, from optics and photonics to fintech to agritech to advanced manufacturing … I could go on. Florida truly has it all.

What about in the Orlando area in particular?

Orlando obviously has deep roots in the modeling,simulation and training space with the National Center for Simulation and the Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division (NAWCTSD) leading the way. The Florida Photonics Cluster is also a partner of ours and has generated global awareness for Orlando and Florida in the field of optics and photonics, largely because of CREOL, the College of Optics and Photonics at the University of Central Florida. Especially now that The Corridor is involved with Cenfluence, I’m learning more every day about Central Florida’s equally robust capabilities in other sectors. The gaming, life sciences and clean energy communities have a ton to offer. I’m excited to focus some of our resources on initiatives that will help accelerate their growth.

You have some very definite views about the role The Corridor should play in the development of Central Florida’s technology sectors. Can you share those with us?

As an initiative of three universities – UCF, USF and UF – The Corridor’s primary role is to facilitate collaboration between our partners in higher education and members of the region’s high-tech and innovation community.

For The Corridor’s first 25 years, the primary tool for this was our signature Matching Grants Research Program. Since the program started in 1996 to grow the region’s talent and technological capabilities, its public-private partnership approach has generated an estimated $1 billion in downstream economic impacts. Countless successes include the hiring of student research participants, commercialization of new products with life-changing capabilities, groundbreaking patents and stronger company positioning to attract federal funds.

As we build upon the legacy of The Corridor’s first 25 years and begin thinking about its future, I’m also working with the team to consider new ways of contributing to the growth of our technology sectors. I’m very careful about evaluating potential programs to ensure that what we do is complementary and not competitive. Given the talent on our team, our regional vantage point and our funding, I’ve found that The Corridor can add the most value in “manufacturing serendipity,” or connecting organizations and resources that otherwise might not have found each other. The Corridor is also uniquely positioned to complement the initiatives of our partners without taking their resources or recognition. We more often apply funding to ignite partner programs and maintain the capability to play a lead role as needed, such as with Cenfluence.

Recently, we’ve also started capitalizing on opportunities to serve as a regional convener and attract federal funding that will support our entrepreneurial community, including an emphasis on minoritized groups and technologies with societal impact. Examples of this include the U.S. Small Business Administration’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Catalyst Competition, which has allowed us to empower more women entrepreneurs, and the U.S. Department of Energy’s EnergyTech University Prize, which encourages colleges students to commercialize clean energy technologies. 

Cenfluence was formed in partnership with Orange County. Can you tell us how it works and share your vision for this initiative?

Cenfluence is a formal cluster management organization that Orange County government’s economic development team partnered with The Corridor to establish in February 2021 to stimulate and diversify the local economy. Since then, the team has been focused on establishing and serving our four target clusters.

We aim to complement partners like the Orlando Economic Partnership, the National Entrepreneur Center, the UCF business incubation program and others that are already serving business in the region by helping cluster members navigate their resources and build upon them by offering help where it’s appropriate for us to fill a gap.

Jack Henkel, The Corridor’s program director for industry and regional diversification, and Dr. Amy Beaird, our senior cluster manager, conduct a needs assessment with each cluster member to understand their objectives and uncover opportunities or challenges that Cenfluence can support. This intimate knowledge of each organization allows the team to take a tailored approach and better positions us to proactively connect cluster members with relevant resources, funding and partnership opportunities. It also allows us to find threads of connection between companies where their talents and needs intersect, and foster collaborations for members within and between the four clusters.

Just in the last year, Jack and Amy identified and helped cluster members apply for more than $1 million in funding opportunities. These are funding sources that our members may not have had the time or awareness to find on their own. They have also kicked off a series of working group discussions that will lead to industry-led projects to strengthen each cluster and have been fostering new relationships with European clusters to expand the reach and visibility of local tech firms.

From your perspective, what will success of the Cenfluence program look like?

In the near term, Cenfluence is hyper-focused on meeting the unique needs of its cluster members and helping them leverage industry-specific opportunities. We are providing business support resources to more than 60 companies, helping them access tangible business opportunities, develop new collaborative partnerships, find new revenue streams and overcome barriers to their growth.

We’re also interested in expansion, with a goal to recruit cluster members in Seminole, Brevard, Volusia, Lake, Polk and Osceola Counties. Longer term, together with the entire team at The Corridor and Orange County government, we aim to grow Cenfluence into a world-renowned cluster management organization serving multiple clusters across all 23 counties of the region.

Ultimately, this will allow us to fulfill a larger vision for The Corridor. Cenfluence provides an avenue through which we can harness the energy of companies in emerging sectors where innovation is already happening and apply our unique, regional perspective and an unparalleled, collaborative network with access to resources that accelerate their success. As the high- tech clusters grow, so will our regional and state economies.

What do you hope to see the Florida High Tech Corridor accomplish in the next decade?

In 10 years, I hope the region we call “The Corridor” will have earned the credibility and influence to put itself in a position where our team and our partners can make a significant impact on the world. I hear a lot that “we need to do a better job of getting our story out there” and I agree marketing is critical to achieving this goal. But this isn’t just about marketing. What it really requires is the courage to set our egos aside and work inclusively to set the conditions for boundless creativity and innovation. I’ve seen it happen on a smaller scale in initiatives like Cenfluence and in university-industry partnerships made possible by our Matching Grants Research Program. In the next decade, I want to see The Corridor multiply that effort tenfold throughout the region, the state and beyond.

Any other thoughts you would like to share with us?

Especially when we talk about Cenfluence and initiatives to grow The Corridor’s high-tech industry, I want to be clear that the conversations we need to have are about “both, and,” not “this OR that” … I want The Corridor to be known for both tech AND tourism, tech AND sports, tech AND the arts, tech AND agriculture, tech AND community, tech AND education. This is not a zero-sum game. The magic of this region is in the truly creative ways it tackles BIG challenges. Creativity is at the heart of innovation. Creativity is ALWAYS additive — it’s AND, not OR.

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About the author

Diane Sears

A career journalist, author and advocate for business growth, Diane Sears is the CEO, editor and publisher of i4 Business. She is also the founder and president of DiVerse Media LLC, which has handled content marketing projects including nonfiction books, white papers, executive speeches and scripts since 2000. She is co-founder of the nonprofit Go for the Greens Foundation, which helps connect women-owned and minority-owned business owners with growth opportunities internationally.

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