Florida must place pieces together to build an innovative, competitive jobs marketplace By Jeremy Ring February 14, 2011 Imagine driving on US 101 between San Francisco and San Jose, Calif. As you're driving, your eyes spot Google off to the right, Facebook and Apple to the left. There's Yahoo and there's Ebay. You continue toward Cisco and National Semiconductor. Just beyond those sit the campuses of Oracle, Intel and Hewlett Packard. Off to the side are huge satellite campuses of IBM and Microsoft. In Palo Alto, the midway point between the two cities is Stanford University, home of the Stanford Research Institute, arguably the world's greatest collection of scientists and innovators. In this stretch, tens of thousands of high-tech workers are shaping how the world communicates, locates information, shops online for products and services, develops life-saving drugs and medical devices, and invents new energy saving innovations. The very ways we manage our daily routines are all being seeded in this one 30-mile stretch called Silicon Valley. Now let's take a tour of Florida by driving down I-95 or the Florida Turnpike, from Palm Beach County to Miami-Dade County. What you'll witness are large, gated communities with tracts of similar homes, all built in the past 25 years. You'll see dozens of small companies selling any number of insurance products. You'll see countless offices of attorneys, accountants and bail bondsmen. Spend just a few minutes and off to the right and left are seemingly endless supplies of pill mills. World-renown universities overflowing with engineers developing paradigm shifting disruptive technologies are nowhere in sight. Go to a Starbucks and listen in on students discussing their new discovery that will shape the world; can't seem to find it. While this juxtaposition may be an exaggeration, it's unfortunately not far off in its contrast. While there are examples of successes in Florida, they're more the exception than the norm. Why is this? The answer is simple, but the change is very complex. If Florida is to ever compete in the 21st century, it must begin to consider all of the parts that go into developing a technology ecosystem. Where does it begin? The engines that drive economies are its research universities. In South Florida, we have two schools with the potential to drive world class research today. Florida Atlantic University, while still in its infancy, continues to move forward in the proper direction, as demonstrated by the new engineering building the college recently opened. The second is the University of Miami, with the leadership of President Donna Shalala and it's soon to launch bio-technology research campus.
A university is the lynchpin where world-changing ideas are developed, and which ultimately grow into great companies. Almost all of the Silicon Valley businesses listed above were launched by students attending a university at the time. Why is this? It's because the university provides the environment for
innovation to incubate. Faculty, independence, labs and computer storage space are all key ingredients for innovation. In order for innovative ideas to grow to profitable and sustainable levels, there are many steps that are required â€” and that Florida must embrace. The initial step is to have an incubator environment. Seed funding is crucial for entrepreneurs to develop business plans, hire attorneys to ensure proper governance, apply for patents and trademarks, secure proof of sales, and to attract executives and additional engineering talent. All this must be in place before a real venture capital commitment could be considered. The next challenge is to ensure that a robust venture capital network exists. Without it, companies that do ultimately attract professional funding are often relocated to other parts of the country, where the investor can monitor or oversee their investment. So how can Florida, and in particular South Florida, face these challenges? First, a strong research and innovation system, through universities or centers of excellence, must be established. Second, a network of high net-worth individuals and investors must collectively pool resources for incubation and provide the needed seed capital. Third, there must be strong engineering programs for businesses to recruit from. Fourth, leaders, such as university presidents, established business leaders and elected officials must showcase innovation and attract venture capitalists to the community. Fifth, we must attract executives with proven track records to provide comfort for the investor. Lastly, our existing world-class, recognizable businesses must help lead the way. Now for the good news! While it may seem Florida is far off from achieving this goal, the reality is that much of the foundation is already in place. It simply has not been interconnected. FAU and the University of Miami both have the potential to attract innovators, engineers and entrepreneurs. Groups such as Boca Raton-based New World Angels has created a tight organization of individuals seeding early stage businesses. The Florida Institute of Commercialization at FAU is a statewide incubator assisting growing ideas into companies for innovations developed at publicly funded research systems. The Scripps Center in Palm Beach County is one of the leading research centers for bio-technology in the nation. The Florida Opportunity Fund, led by Florida First Partners, is investing in early stage Florida clean technology businesses. The Florida Growth Fund, managed by Hamilton Lane, is currently investing in Florida technology companies that are beyond the start-up phase and have a proven track record. Venture capitalists such as Miami-based HIG and Tampa based Ballast Point Ventures are some of the most successful venture capitalists in the nation. Established executives are living throughout South Florida. Many retired here and, due to the market crash, are being forced back to work. As for existing businesses, Florida Power and Light Co. in Juno Beach is ranked number one in the nation in output of solar and wind power. Wayne Huizenga of Fort
Lauderdale is the only entrepreneur ever to create three separate companies added to the S&P 500 and JM Family, based in Deerfield Beach, is the largest importer of Toyota vehicles in the nation. What this demonstrates is that the pieces of the eco-system all exist. They've just not been successfully linked together. They need to, and once they do, then South Florida will be able to establish itself as a true 21st century economic leader. Currently we have a robust service industry with no one to service. An innovation economy creates wealth. From wealth, jobs are created. During our height at Yahoo, thousands of individuals were generating wealth. Money was being spent and the entire community could take advantage of it. Small business such as children's clothing stores, art galleries, boutiques, car dealerships, florists, bookstores, restaurants, attorneys, accountants, homebuilders and any other small business you can imagine were all thriving. Entrepreneurs are the key to a robust innovation economy, but politicians have an important role to play as well. Our government must over-invest in our university system. We must have a world-class pre-K, and K-12 education system. We must give the best teachers the independence to teach and be creative in their classrooms without so many regulations being thrust upon them, and we must be able to quickly dismiss those teachers who are falling behind. Government must emphasize science, technology, engineering and math as part of the core curriculum in our schools and then provide the proper funding so children can get a comprehensive education, inclusive of physical education, art, civics and music. If we're to attract business, government must stop creating broad-based incentives that make for good political rhetoric but result in very little concrete successes. Rather, government officials should meet with individual companies and develop targeted incentives for businesses to relocate. Tallahassee must do a better job of selling and developing a pipeline to CEOs of major companies all over the world. Finally, individual Floridians must start marketing what's best about our state. Our weather is the envy of the nation, there is no personal income tax, and our corporate tax rate is lower and its structure more fair than other large states such as California and New York. Yes, we have too much government regulation and bureaucracy, which need streamlining, but so too do most other states. We must stop telling the nation our education system is awful, which is far from accurate. It's true that more funding is necessary, but children that attend public schools in this state can and do get a great education and ultimately are successful in the work force. A robust, 21st century innovative economy in Florida that creates wealth and results in consumer spending and ultimately a strong work-force, is achievable. The foundation exists. All that remains is for the various parts of the system to interconnect and be properly marketed to the rest of the world. Jeremy Ring represents District 40 in the Florida Senate.