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Community Responds to N.Y. Times Questioning Orlando’s Tech Cred

Earlier this week, an envoy including Mayor Buddy Dyer and Mayor Teresa Jacobs, Metro Orlando EDC CEO Rick Weddle and Disney Senior VP Ken Potrock visited New York to spread the word about Orlando’s rapidly evolving identity and the “Orlando. You don’t know the half of it.” campaign. The group met with national media outlets like Bloomberg Advantage, CNN Money, TechCrunch and AdAge. One result of the trip was a column from the New York Times asking if Orlando was the “Next Silicon Valley.” The article lists the insights of several researchers, including an Urban Theorist ironically named Richard Florida about the model components necessary to create a substantial tech hub, the Next Silicon Valley, and compares Orlando’s features to those of other cities such as New York and Provo, Utah:

“I think what Orlando has is a combination of the space stuff and the Disney stuff,” Mr. Florida said. “It’s not trivial, those things taken together, but it’s hard to see how you put them together.”

Local officials point to one way they might. Orlando is a center for modeling and simulation technology, because flight simulators and theme park rides can rely on a lot of the same technology. Tourism isn’t generally thought of as a tech-intensive field, but Disney recently developed its MyMagic Plus system (waterproof wristbands with RFID chips that give visitors access to rides and unlock their hotel room doors) in-house in Orlando.

Still, tourism is heavily dispersed geographically, and while there are a lot of tourism dollars in Orlando, even Disney is not headquartered there. Companies that produce technology for the hospitality industry do not need to cluster in Orlando.

“I would say, over all, this is a relatively thin backdrop,” said Mark Muro, the researcher behind the Brookings report, after examining his own figures about industry concentration in Orlando, which show few high-tech specialties. “But I would note it is possible to diversify, starting from nothing.”

The article prompted passionate responses from many community leaders:

“Although I feel the writer could have done more research, I’m sorta glad the article puts us to the fire and squelches a bit of the self congratulating. I’m so excited about how Orlando is developing, but we should take the criticism and ask ourselves if we’re doing enough as a community or are we suffering from premature celebrations. We are patting each other on the back too soon when there is still much work to do. There are still too few of us working toward unity, cohesion and collaboration between homegrown startups and established tech. There is still friction in starting and funding a company in Orlando. Most of us are both amazed and baffled when we are named a top tech hub, top place for foodies, top place for hipsters, number one for coffee houses, fastest growing xyz – all sometimes trite, Buzzfeed-type listings that are based on conjecture or lazy journalism. If you asked the tech community as a whole whether they felt connected and validated, I would argue 50 percent would say no. For every success there are failures, and we don’t analyze and discuss why they are happening or how we can improve the success rate as a community. I’ve been guilty of saying we can be the next Austin or major tech hub, but isn’t that like saying San Antonio is the next theme park capital because there’s a Six Flags there?

In a city’s life cycle we are definitely on an upward trajectory, no one can argue growth and our downtown has improved dramatically in the past few years. But just because our downtown has improved doesn’t mean it comes close to a Manhattan city block and it doesn’t mean that the 42 million people who visit Orlando annually have a clue that our downtown even exists. Nor perhaps should they care. Let’s be introspective a bit, let’s develop a culture of collaboration. Let’s slow the self-congratulating and recognize our homegrown successes and sincerely see if we can help them become the anchor companies we’re looking to attract from the outside. Let us as residents, workers and business owners believe the change we’re expressing is happening internally before we try and communicate it to the outside world.”
– Carlos Carbonell, CEO of Echo Interaction Group and Orlando Tech Association President

“This is not meant to be dismissive of SF/SV strengths and structural advantages, but is rather a reflection of the understanding that we have to build our own city, our own future, based on the resources available to us locally. It does no one any good to ape what has been successful in other locales.I would also make mention of ICAMR (International Consortium for Advanced Manufacturing Research) This facility and the ecosystem it will spawn and maintain is global in its impact and scale. We are also the leading center for computer vision in the US with some of the most well regarded and important research taking place at the University and a number of companies exploiting this emerging technology.”
– Phillip Holt, Founder of Canvs, Splyt

“IMO, this article is reflective of Orlando’s past, not present and future. It fails to mention that Pentaho just sold to Hitachi for $500MM. We’ve got multiple tech companies that are quietly approaching or exceeding valuations like this flying under the radar right now. No real mention of the startup scene that is still in its early stages right now, but is progressing rapidly. I don’t have any negative emotions when reading this article bc it’s backward looking, and not forward. That’s the easier angle and story to write. Orlando is still writing its history and you have to be a part of that to understand that, so we’ll see what that looks like to outsiders in 5-10 years.”
– Aaron Gray, Vice President of Jones Lang LaSalle, the real estate firm that was key in developing the Church Street Exchange into a downtown digital technology hub

“Provo may have some measurables that rank highly for the type of analysis done for the article, in fact, great urban places and centers for innovation are much more complex than a certain set of numbers might indicate. At the end of the day, the places that will matter in the future will be interesting and provide much more than the simplistic measurables the author references. Great places are reflective of emotional connections that attract and retain talent. Saying a place like Provo is successful is kind of like measuring the success of a desert by the weather conditions – if it’s hot and dry, it meets the definition of “successful”. But, in reality, there is much more to it than that. The ecosystem we are creating in Orlando is, by definition, complex and does not lend itself to measurables that are easily quantifiable. Sure, this article raises some valid points based on certain stats, but I’d argue that is it very shallow and does not reflect the “human nature” that is involved in understanding cities and centers of innovation where smart folks really want to be. Orlando has the opportunity to be a great “sum of its part” and we are building something meaningful. Naysayers will always be there and that is fine. If the author would like to refute the power of UCF Downtown Campus and Creative Village as a game changer and something that is a compelling competitive advantage, I’d welcome the debate.”
– Craig Uslter, President of Uslter Development, Inc., the team that’s bringing Creative Village to downtown Orlando

“I think we’re at a critical point in our future and are making some much needed investments in our community and in infrastructure that will propel our region forward. Our start-up tech/IT community is young but is rapidly growing. Homegrown tech companies are being acquired (code school, pentaho, channel intelligence) and we’re starting to see capital flow into the region. However we have a very long history of technology in the region dating back to the 1960s with Lockheed Martin to support NASA program as well as origins of UCF (formerly Florida Technological University). Today, we have a major aviation, aerospace and defense community that has also commercialized products for other industries.”
– Jennifer Wakefield, VP of Marketing & Communications @ the Metro Orlando EDC

“We are an emerging region that many folks see in their rearview mirror. Silicon Valley is a one off. We are Orlando and we are becoming what we want to be. Competition for readership rewards sharp edged opinions based on only superficial research. I often counter these opinions with some research when I can. I haven’t got a retraction yet but I do get a “thanks for the information” sometimes. Our Optics and Photonics is world class too by the way. Finisar, an optics company that was spun out of the university as Optium, was part of our incubator, is doing more than a billion dollars in annual revenue now and employs 12,000. I stopped paying too much attention to these kind of stories except that it does show us what other’s opinions are of us. It is their opinion, not ours and not a true representation and frankly, people make stuff up when they need to fill in the blanks. Certainly, the reviews are mixed and you can make the point on either side of the issue. We are featured as an example in William Holstein’s book, the Next American Economy.”
– Dr. Tom O’Neal, UCF Associate VP for Research & Commercialization and Cofounder of the Florida Angel Nexus

“I know the quote “Nerds love Orlando” is true, because I am the proof point. I happen to love Orlando more than Silicon Valley, San Francisco, Boston and Washington DC – all places I have lived and in which I continue to work. From my perspective, Orlando does not compete with Silicon Valley. Orlando is a great place to be, with assets and liabilities like every emerging technology hub. As the community supports this ecosystem, we need to focus on growing and optimizing those assets and reducing the liabilities.”
– Jason Rottenberg, Managing Director of Arsenal Venture Partners

“It’s all about the people. There are surging grassroots movements happening with our indie game developers, women entrepreneurs committed to tech innovation and digital entertainment technologists. I see a growing consensus among our tech pioneers – that this is THE place they want to host their wealth-building technology initiatives. The smartest economic storytellers will be keen to watch our story unfold.”
– Shea Glenny, Director of the Orlando Women’s Business Center

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