Connections between civic, business, and community organizations dedicated to diversifying Orlando’s economy have resulted in an explosion of tech-related activity in Orlando. Events, coworking spaces, festivals, and business associations are springing up across the Metro area, with downtown Orlando at the center of all the activity. Shaping the activity are a number of Hispanic leaders, working in partnership with other business leaders across the region.
The focus on technology as an economic driver began several years ago with the announcement of Creative Village, a “transit-oriented development that will be anchored by education, new office and commercial uses, a mix of residential and quality open space.” The development, located in the heart of downtown Orlando, will support a creative environment of technology, education, and other companies and organizations that fit the mission of the community.
Says the Creative Village team, “We’ve learned that a successful tech community isn’t simply about entrepreneurs with big ideas. It’s about the entire ecosystem surrounding the startups. Tech companies need an educated workforce, financial and legal expertise from people who understand their business, and a support system to challenge ideas and foster growth. The Creative Village facilitates this ecosystem; it is a place that will provide opportunities for those fortuitous encounters with other creative thinkers.”
This community-focused mindset has gained momentum in recent months with the announcement of a City of Orlando digital main street, a nonprofit coworking space dedicated to supporting startups, and several exciting announcements relating to Creative Village, including the possible addition of a University of Central Florida campus. These details have served to support Orlando’s vision of a vast innovation center in the heart of downtown Orlando, a platform for the continued development of an industry looking to the future.
The City of Orlando and regional economic development organizations, including the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, have been overwhelmingly supportive of community efforts. Along with businesses and organizations across Orlando, they have begun working to establish common goals and partner on projects relating to technology. The recent documentary film Orlando Rising captured this trend toward city-wide collaboration. In the film, everyone seems to agree that in order to compete on a national and global scale, the Orlando technology industry will have to grow faster than the many other cities around the world that are actively working to become tech centers.
This imperative is fueling activity designed to connect organizations and individuals, support new companies, expand the reach of established businesses, and make it easier for everyone working in the technology industry in Orlando to share what they’re doing. It’s also bringing in more and more Hispanic leaders, who have in the past been underrepresented in technology.
It’s a little-known fact that technology is Orlando’s second-largest industry, after tourism, but it’s becoming clearer as area organizations begin to push the message out. Tech companies in Orlando are widely dispersed and often have little communication with one another. Several local groups have been working to change that. One example is the increased visibility of the independent gaming community with the growth of IndieNomicon, an organization that supports indie game companies with much-needed resources, events, and promotion. In only a year, IndieNomicon has grown from a handful of disconnected game designers to an active organization with over four hundred members participating in weekly events averaging one hundred and twenty attendees. As part of a tech sector bolstered by EA-Tiburon and one of the world’s largest simulation and training clusters, local game companies are able to better connect with talent and resources through these regular gatherings.
The opportunity for companies to co-locate is key. That’s where Canvs comes in. Canvs is a planned nonprofit coworking community dedicated to making it easier for anyone to start and grow a company in Orlando. Set to open this summer in the Church Street Exchange, Canvs will provide resident startups with an open, collaborative workspace; a community association that encourages connections between founders; a mentorship network of business leaders from across the Orlando technology spectrum; connections to Orlando universities; and both curated and original programming tailored to the needs of startup companies and the broader entrepreneurial community. Canvs’s nonprofit operations will extend beyond the traditional coworking model to support an ecosystem in which anyone can be inspired to take the entrepreneurial journey. The community’s future location- the Church Street Exchange- is in the process of being transformed into a center for tech activity in downtown Orlando, with tech companies occupying all levels of the building.
Canvs shares many of its goals with the newly- formed Orlando Tech Association, which is on a path to unite and transform Orlando’s tech community. Orlando Tech, a nonprofit association designated by city officials as Orlando’s “digital main street,” was formed only this year to support and grow the tech industry across the Metro Orlando area. The organization came about as the result of grassroots efforts, and combined several community projects: an industry association representing the interests of tech companies, communication efforts designed to promote local industry activity, and events to support product development.
It began with Orlando Tech Meetup, which, within a few years of its creation, had become the largest grassroots tech gathering in the Southeast. Today it serves as Orlando’s unifying tech community event, providing a venue for product demos and networking between local professionals. With Orlando Tech’s formal incorporation into the Orlando Main Street program, the nonprofit was able to hire an executive director and establish a board of directors. One of their first planned programs is Tech Week, a gathering of all of Orlando’s most active tech-focused organizations for a week of activity spread across the Metro Orlando area.
Orlando Tech President and Vision Magazine Editor-in-Chief Carlos Carbonell is one of the Hispanic business leaders championing progress in technology.
“There is a direct correlation between diversity in a community and it’s ability to become a tech hub. We are fortunate that our community already has the ingredients for a successful tech ecosystem. We now have to nurture and support that ecosystem while working collaboratively with other public and private organizations and municipalities – our hope is that the Orlando Tech Association will facility this collaboration.” said Carbonell.
Techies can also find support at Starter Studio, downtown Orlando’s first tech business accelerator. Founded and hosted by Envy Labs, the recurring three-month program provides tech startup companies with free workspace and amenities at the Envy Labs office, mentorship, and programming designed to support early-stage business development. The majority of Starter Studio events are open to the public, increasing the benefit of the program to the community and the exposure of resident startups to local business leaders. Starter Studio events include Founder Talks, at which local business founders tell their stories, sharing the challenges they faced and how they were able to overcome them; and Brown Bag Lunch, which features one hour presentations from local experts in areas relating to small business development.
“Starter Studio’s goal is to help tech startups succeed here in Orlando. We do this by running a 3-month program that combines mentorship, educational events, and a demo day. Orlando isn’t known as a great place to create tech startups, inside or outside the city. We created Starter Studio to do our part to fix this perception, and show this isn’t the case at all,” says Starter Studio and Envy Labs founder Gregg Pollack.
Starter Studio and other groups are adding to the swell of downtown activity, which takes the form of nightly events, workshops, and other opportunities to connect. Canvs will serve as a much-needed gathering space, along with Envy Labs, the Melrose Center, and other venues, for a wide range of events. The lobby of the Church Street Exchange building will soon host Orlando Data Science, an organization that develops data science events and educational resources; Rollins College and UCF events; Nerd Nite, an evening of presentations on arts, science, and culture; Tech Talks pitch practice for startups; and a speaker series featuring leaders from all areas of business and technology. Envy Labs hosts many of the local Meetup.com groups, which collectively provides a small, niche event almost every night of the week. There’s also the weekly pitch event One Million Cups, held at Rollins College, which provides a regular opportunity for companies to pitch their products to room full of entrepreneurs, students, professors, investors, and interested business professionals.
In addition to the smaller events, there are large annual or semi-annual events like BarCamp, WordCamp, VenturePitch, Startup Weekend, and iSummit. iSummit, sponsored by local company/ tech publication Florida Technology Journal, is a digital conference held every year in Florida. The conference has been held for the past several years in Orlando, and is scheduled for Orlando in 2014. Next year the event will be replaced by OrlandoiX, a digital festival designed to bring together the most innovative Orlando tech companies to connect with product developers and tech experts from around the world. OrlandoiX will leverage Orlando’s entertainment corridor, which will stretch from the new Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts to the Amway Center and beyond, to transform downtown Orlando into a digital village for the week-long festival. The festival will coincide with Orlando Tech Association’s Tech Week, with satellite events taking place across Orlando.
With everything that’s going on, the broader Orlando community is starting to get engaged. Business leaders are dedicating time to mentorship; companies are supporting nonprofit efforts and tech gatherings with funding and tailoring services for the growing entrepreneurship community; media groups are dedicating more time to covering tech news. This is a trend that is likely to continue in the coming years, with major implications for the City. More opportunities for the business community as a whole means more opportunity for Hispanic businesses, and greater diversity in a growing segment of our local economy. The increase in tech jobs means higher wages, better education, and a more forward-thinking business and civic structure. Hispanic leaders are championing this move into the future, helping to guide progress in Orlando and beyond.