Tallahassee Innovation and Technology Magazine

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INNOVATION& TECHNOLOGY

Future Making

in the

Florida’s capital city positions itself as a magnetic center of innovation

2021 ANNUAL REPORT

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NORTH FLORIDA’S DESTINATION FOR INNOVATION

MAgnetic capital of the world distinctive assets Home of the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, researchers from two world-class universities, an engineering college, a growing global-reach manufacturer, programs and support for innovators, and dynamic community collaboration in a picturesque setting.

business incubation

Innovation Park’s location and invaluable resources are designed to help make your company a success.

2051 E. Paul Dirac Dr, Tallahassee, FL 32310 (850) 575-0343 | innovate@inn-park.com www.innovation-park.com

North Florida Innovation Labs, a brand new 40,000 square-foot facility with state-of-the-art wet and dry labs, prototype development resources, and manufacturing space has been funded and is in the design phase. Join now to use our transitional space or as a virtual member to gain access to this vibrant and growing innovation community.

space to grow More than ten acres of land and 23,000 square feet of office space are available to your business. Just 3 miles from Tallahassee International Airport and minutes from the universities and downtown. Gain proximity to our unmatched assets by locating your company in Innovation Park.


REGULATORY DIVISIONS, MEET DIGITAL TRANSFORMATION. What is holding you back from transformation? It can happen more quickly and cost-effectively than you might imagine. We partner with government (and only government), so we understand the unique challenges you face. When it comes to providing technology solutions in the regulatory program space, we’ve done it all. We understand that every agency has their own unique set of governing rules, so we continue to learn and adapt. We know it’s not one-size-fits-all.

Utilizing our services: • the same amount of staff can process more applications, • you complete digital inspections with less time and budget, • you get a 360° view of your regulatory program, so your team can implement data-driven policies, and • you get a simplified application intake and workflow.

kyrasolutions.com/regulatory

2021 Tallahassee Innovation & Technology

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“Tallahassee is not just a great place to do business. It’s a great place for businesses like GHOST CONTROLS to grow.”

Chris Jensen EVP/Senior Lender Prime Meridian Bank Tallahassee, Florida

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| 2021 Tallahassee Innovation & Technology

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A TALLAHASSEE STORY OF INNOVATION

THE RIGHT FIT FOR “NEXT GENERATION” GATE AUTOMATION COMPANY

GHOST CONTROLS® designs and manufactures innovative gate automation solutions for the North American market. Millions of gates are installed each year, only to be manually opened or closed and secured with cumbersome locks and chains. GHOST CONTROLS® introduced a new generation of gate openers and accessories that are low voltage as well as solar optimized for environments without access to power. They are easy to install, perfect for the Do-It-Yourself type, and require minimal maintenance. In fact, GHOST CONTROLS® were pioneers in designing the first D-I-Y products. The only thing we needed to further expand our gate automation business was a financial partner that understood us: A partner that took the time to get to know us. We discovered that is what Prime Meridian Bank is all about: building relationships that are solutions-based. GHOST CONTROLS® passion lies in offering leading-edge technology, security, convenience and peace of mind to families.

“Prime Meridian Bank helped us open up a world of possibilities for our Tallahassee gate automation company. They are relationship-focused and we could not ask for a better financial partner.”

Joe Kelley

President/CEO Ghost Controls, LLC Tallahassee, Florida www.GhostControls.com

Prime Meridian Bank supports that vision every step of the way.

2021 Tallahassee Innovation & Technology

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Bringing Leadership to Every Partnership. Put the expertise and resources of James Moore’s Technology Services Team to work for you. Assurance Tax Planning & Compliance SBIR Grant Accounting & Consulting Accounting & Controllership Services CFO Consulting HR Solutions IT Solutions Exit Planning

www.jmco.com | 2021 Tallahassee Innovation & Technology

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2021 ANNUAL REPORT

Contents A Place to Succeed 08

Tallahassee’s industry assets include the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, the High-Performance Materials Institute, the Florida Center for Advanced Aero-Propulsion, and the Center for Advanced Power Systems. Domi Station, TCC Center for Innovation, FAMU Technology Transfer & Commercialization, Jim Moran Institute for Global Entrepreneurship, and the FSU Jim Moran College of Entrepreneurship energize a wealth of startup activity. Simply put, Tallahassee is where innovative people and companies come to succeed, writes Cristina Paredes.

MagCorp

PHOTO COURTESY OF DANFOSS TURBOCOR AND COVER PHOTO BY DAVE BARFIELD

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The MagLab has the largest concentration of magnet scientists under one roof and welcomes more visiting scientists each year than any other facility in the world, notes Abby Queale, the CEO at MagCorp. “We want to put the expertise and infrastructure at a world-class research facility here in Tallahassee to work for industry throughout the world.”

Danfoss Turbocor 14

In accounting for compressor manufacturer Danfoss Turbocor’s continuing and growing commitment to Tallahassee, president Ricardo Schneider said the city’s research and development infrastructure is strong, a big part of the reason the the company has been able to meet and exceed its goals for the 12 years that Danfoss has been in the capital city.

QuarryBio

20 Eric Graben operated his biotech business, QuarryBio, at Indiana University for about five years before he had to relocate. He became interested in Tallahassee after his wife secured a position in the English department at FSU, but his move to join her wasn’t easily accomplished. A lot of things had to come together — and they did.

Innovation Park

24 A $17 million, 40,000-squarefoot incubator at Innovation Park will be equipped with wet labs, dry labs, assembly line areas, an electronics lab, machine shops, a wood shop and 3D printers. “These are all going to be resources that you will be unable to find anywhere else in the region,” said Innovation Park executive director Ron Miller.

Problem Solved 28

Real estate brokers in Tallahassee were frustrated. Listed on the real estate platform that forms part of the Enterprise Florida website were properties throughout peninsular Florida and the Panhandle. Enter business development manager T.J. Lewis and his colleagues at the Office of Economic Vitality. They came up with a work-around that solved the problem.

GovTech 32

Despite high stakes — the number of potential customers is limited — working in the government technology sector has unique advantages with customer retention being near the top of the list. “If you provide a great product and great

service and take care of these customers, they will remain extremely loyal,” said Eric Grant of Municode.

Weather Tech 38

Climate change and resulting hurricanes, wildfires and heat waves have buoyed demand for products and services that can mitigate weather-related risks. And, a range of technological advances — in drones, satellites, sensors, artificial intelligence and cloud computing — have made it easier to collect weather data and transform it into actionable business insights.

Cristina Paredes

42 The director of the Tallahassee-Leon County Office of Economic Vitality advises young women professionals to remember that “you’ve earned your seat at the table, and deep down, you have to own that seat that you’ve earned. A lot of times as women, we tend to keep our places small at the table rather than owning the whole space.”

Sensatek

44 Tallahassee isn’t Silicon Valley, but says Reamonn Soto of Sensatek, it is a “really good place where ideas are incubated. It’s a ‘small’ place but has a lot of giants who live there.” Soto, currently in Daytona Beach, sings the praises of mentors in Tallahassee who helped him get his start in business making high-temperature sensors.

Ghost Controls 46

Given the growing number of people who are tending to backyard flocks of chickens,

Ghost Controls, a maker of gate openers, decided to expand its product line to include Coop Controls. A “raccoon cam” figured in the development of the product, which even the weekend handyman can install.

In Pursuit of Capital 48

In Tallahassee, like the rest of Florida, wealth is concentrated in real estate. A shortage of investor types with experience in the tech sector can make for a tight supply of capital. But as technology becomes a bigger player in local economies, investors are sure to wise up and sources of capital are sure to catch up.

Promotions SPERRY & ASSOCIATES

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exclusively with government clients for nearly two decades. The firm understands government agencies, their environments, their pain points and their delights. With domain expertise and technologists, it is able to define government agency challenges, draw up goals and implement valuable digital world solutions.

2021 Tallahassee Innovation & Technology

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Tallahassee Tech Florida’s capital is a growing center for innovation

AS FLORIDA’S CAPITAL CITY, TALLAHASSEE

is known for its dynamic quality of life, including award-winning parks with over 700 miles of trails full of scenic views, outdoor adventure, and a vibrant art and culture scene. The Southern hospitality, larger-thanlife festivals and delicious culinary scene readily win over visitors, but there’s more to our community than meets the eye. With cutting-edge research centers, one of the top engineering colleges in the state and world-class universities, Tallahassee is uniquely positioned to cultivate an innovative business environment that thrives on research and development. Even in the midst of a global pandemic, Tallahassee was voted one of the “Top 10 Best Cities in the South” by Southern Living magazine and one of the “Top 10 Best Places for Career Opportunities” by SmartAsset. Here, innovation thrives as the product of strong collaboration across universities, business support partners and the local economic development organization that Tallahassee offers. The Office of Economic Vitality, which I am proud to lead, is a joint City of Tallahassee and Leon County economic development organization. Our team focuses on local business support, economic inclusion, and highlighting our world-class innovators and research assets that drive our business development efforts. Working with entrepreneurial ecosystem partners to identify business opportunities and leverage innovative research and a diverse talent pool, our community produces the best and brightest the 8

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state has to offer. A robust technology hub with an abundance of resources for business leaders and researchers alike, Tallahassee is a great place to raise a business and a family. With strong industry assets minus a high cost of living, Tallahassee is an affordable community to call home. These assets include the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory (MagLab), the High-Performance Materials Institute, the Florida Center for Advanced Aero-Propulsion, and the Center for Advanced Power Systems — all located in Innovation Park. There’s also Domi Station, TCC Center for Innovation, FAMU Technology Transfer

& Commercialization, Jim Moran Institute for Global Entrepreneurship, and the FSU Jim Moran College of Entrepreneurship, both of which teach industry-leading curricula, host hackathons, hold numerous networking opportunities and energize a wealth of startup activity. Simply put, Tallahassee is where innovative people and companies come to succeed. In Florida’s capital, you’ll find a thriving tech business scene. Just look at the socks manufacturer DivvyUp. The class project turned unqualified success has set the standard for swag, growing their business into a


PRESIDENT/PUBLISHER

PHOTOS COURTESY OF ECONOMIC OFFICE OF VITALITY

worldwide brand through their pioneering small-batch apparel manufacturing process. DivvyUp has no plans of slowing down in Tallahassee since launching their new venture, That’s My Buddy. Companies, such as RMS/H-Wind, WeatherSTEM and Weather Tiger have pioneered meteorology tech, improving hurricane and crop futures modeling. Other companies, such as Ruvos, Inspired Technologies and Municode, have pioneered software for government and analytics and are used by the largest federal contractors and communities across the United States. At least six local technology companies have grown to over 100 employees: Mainline Information Systems, Automated Health Systems, Brandt Information Systems, CSG Systems, Marquis Software and PATLive/Tresta. Danfoss Turbocor, which produces the world’s first oil-free magnetic bearing compressor for the HVAC industry, has been a flagship archetype for a magnetics-to-manufacturing application, which has resulted in millions in sales and hundreds of jobs. This international company recently selected Tallahassee at their “World Wide Center of Excellence” for research and development and is expanding their manufacturing space right next to the MagLab, creating over 230 new jobs and millions in new capital investment. Tallahassee’s technology sector has experienced fast-paced growth thanks, in part, to the long-term investment made throughout the community by the city, county, chambers of commerce, business leaders, OEV and many other partners. For example, Tallahassee will be home to the North Florida Innovation Labs, a $17 million, 40,000-square-foot incubator, including wet labs, a tissue and bioculture room, engineering/light manufacturing spaces and a lab for prototype development. The Leon County Research & Development Authority, along with the U.S. Economic Development Administration, OEV and the Florida State University Research Foundation, helped fund the project to attract and support innovative businesses and keep entrepreneurial talent right here in our community. We are growing talent through our universities and K-12 schools by building synergy with our local private sector businesses to create what we believe will be one of the sharpest and most dynamic workforces. As you will see in this special edition, Tallahassee is a world leader in technology as startups and established companies develop innovative ideas and cutting-edge products to compete globally. I invite you to come and discover the strengths of Florida’s Capital for Business, Tallahassee, Florida. Sincerely,

Cristina Paredes Director, Office of Economic Vitality

BRIAN E. ROWLAND

ASSOCIATE PUBLISHER

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Tallahassee Innovation & Technology is published annually by Rowland Publishing, Inc. 1932 Miccosukee Road, Tallahassee, FL 32308. 850/878-0554. Tallahassee Innovation & Technology and Rowland Publishing, Inc. are not responsible for unsolicited manuscripts, photography or artwork. Editorial contributions are welcomed and encouraged but will not be returned. Tallahassee Innovation & Technology reserves the right to publish any letters to the editor. Copyright May 2021 Tallahassee Innovation & Technology. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or part without written permission is prohibited. Member of three Chambers of Commerce throughout the region.

2021 Tallahassee Innovation & Technology

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A Jewel in the Crown MagCorp unites research and business communities

BY STEVE BORNHOFT // PHOTOGRAPHY BY LINDSEY MASTERSON

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Toward the end of his 10-year stint as a research faculty member at the National High Field Laboratory managed by Florida State University, Jeff Whalen attended trade shows and conferences related to magnets and magnetic supply chains and made a troubling discovery. First casually and then intentionally, Whalen asked science entrepreneurs and other conference attendees if they were aware of the MagLab. Eventually, he had spoken to representatives of some 200 organizations.


MagCorp director Jeff Whalen, CEO and chief legal counsel Abby Queale and general manager Lezlee Richerson are combining to facilitate cooperation between private sector businesses and Tallahassee’s academic and research communities.

Fully half did not know of the lab. And, among those who did, Whalen discovered a reluctance to interact with the research facility. That reluctance, he would discover, was attributable to three reasons. Foremost among them was an unwillingness to negotiate intellectual property with a university. Additionally, long timelines associated with getting agreements done were a deterrent for those who had attempted negotiations. And, there was the perception that

nobody at the university wanted to talk business; they just wanted to do science. “The commercial side didn’t want to hear about professor’s teaching loads, and they didn’t want to be given a lesson,” Whalen said. Whalen’s survey work led him to build the model for MagCorp, a business that is serving as a bird dog and a catalyst for innovation by removing barriers that had long separated the MagLab and the commercial sector. Central to that model is a master agreement that provides a formula for intellectual property sharing and knocks down bureaucratic hurdles. “Standardization enables us to be upfront and transparent with everybody involved,” Whalen said. “This is the way it’s going to be, this is your piece of the pie. If you don’t like the terms, let’s talk about them now, not after we have cooked the pie.”

Before MagCorp was established, Whalen sought feedback about his business model from fellow MagLab employees, university officials and the director of the MagLab. “I went to companies and I asked, ‘Will this get you to the table and get you to talk to us about doing partnerships for new tech development?’ And they said, ‘Yeah, that seems pretty fair.’ ” Buoyed by consistently encouraging words from several sources, he carried on. It took two years, but FSU signed off on the agreement in December of last year. “I got to the point where I could empathize with the organizations that talked about long timelines,” Whalen said. Along the way, the university retained an outside expert who was tasked with finding out whether any precedents for such a university/commercial sector agreement existed. 2021 Tallahassee Innovation & Technology

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There were none. “That’s what makes us so excited about it,” Whalen enthused. “This is an opportunity to put FSU on the map, to put Tallahassee on the map and to put the state of Florida in the foreground.” Whalen brought on Lezlee Richerson, who was working in research administration at the MagLab, as a MagCorp co-founder. Today, she is MagCorp’s general manager. Eight months later, “with a little bit of convincing,” Whalen, who is MagCorp’s director, added a third co-founder, Abby Queale; she is MagCorp’s CEO and chief legal counsel. Queale had been working as FSU’s patent attorney and managed the MagLab patent portfolio in the Office of Commercialization. In her role as someone working in both legal and technology transfer, she had witnessed the problems documented by Whalen’s survey work. “If you were on the outside in industry, you would call somebody at FSU, and if you were lucky, you got to the right person for what you wanted,” said Queale, explaining that one office negotiated non-disclosure agreements and intellectual property licenses, while a foundation negotiated research agreements and received payments for research and licensing royalties. Callers felt that they were up against a crapshoot. “It drove us all crazy, and we said, ‘Oh, my God, there has got to be a better way to do this,’ ” Queale said. When Whalen shared his model with her, she thought it “genius.” The agreement unites a university accustomed to receiving multi-milliondollar, multi-year grants with high-risk, entrepreneurial businesses that would prefer to move quarter to quarter, accomplishing one step at a time. Said Queale, “When things don’t go right, it allows them to fail small.” That new union also may facilitate patent approvals. “The legal definition for a patentable 12

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Jeff Whalen holds a doctorate in chemistry, has worked as a researcher and has founded businesses. In addition to his duties as the director of MagCorp, he is a member of the teaching faculty at FSU’s Jim Moran College of Entrepreneurship.

invention is something that is new and useful,” Queale explained. “The MagLab is out of this world when it comes to the ‘new’ part. That’s what the National Science Foundation funds them to do, make discoveries.” But pairing those discoveries with real-world uses was often a challenge. “It’s not easy when you are in the blue sky and you are dealing with the equivalent of making a Mars rover, and that is what they are doing over there. It’s the National MagLab, it’s not NASA, and you don’t see a landing on TV, but they are doing work of equal magnitude in their field.” Industries not at all concerned about how their products might fare in a 45-tesla magnetic field are good about supplying the “uses” part. “The MagLab is the bejeweled crown, and MagCorp is like a little jewel on the crown,” Queale said. “We are a catalyst that enables innovation to happen.” “We don’t want to be so broad as to build our own brick-and-mortar facility and staff it with our own scientists,” said Whalen, who in addition to his role at MagCorp, is a teaching faculty member at the Jim Moran College of

Entrepreneurship. “Instead, we have an army of contracted subject matter experts — 15 or 20 research faculty from the MagLab and another 10 from various university departments and industry. “A lot of the project management we do is pulling together the proper SMEs.” Whalen departed South Florida in 2001 to attend FSU. Eight years later, he had earned a doctorate in chemistry. “In the 20 years that I have been here, I have seen the city undergo a lot of transformation,” Whalen said, “and today we are in the best spot we have ever been in. The energy around our entrepreneurial ecosystem rivals anything you can get anywhere in the state. “The MagLab has the largest concentration of magnet scientists under one roof and welcomes more visiting scientists each year than any other facility in the world. Tallahassee is coming out of an adolescence and realizing that we have a lot going for us here.” Queale summed up MagCorp’s role in Tallahassee’s maturation process: “We want to put the expertise and infrastructure at a world-class research facility here in Tallahassee to work for industry throughout the world.” ●


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STATE-OF-THE-ART LABORATORY Danfoss Turbocor’s new customer Application Development Center features three fully automated test facilities capable of accommodating residential and commercial air-conditioning and heat pump equipment, including rooftop units, from 1.2 to 50 tons and air-cooled chillers up to 150 tons. Additionally, the lab will be able to test mildly flammable refrigerants.

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PHOTO COURTESY OF DANFOSS TURBOCOR

Turbocharged Growth Danfoss continues to generate excitement in Tallahassee BY STEVE BORNHOFT

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In the difficult year that was 2020, business was up 6.1 percent at Danfoss Turbocor, an international manufacturer of oil-free centrifugal compressors for commercial applications whose U.S. headquarters, for 12 years, has been in Tallahassee. Industry-wide, business was off more than 10 percent last year. What, then, is the Danfoss difference? Demand for its product is high, Danfoss Turbocor president Ricardo Schneider told a January meeting of the Tallahassee-Leon County Office of Economic Vitality stakeholders, in part because of the significant ways in which it departs from conventional compressors. Danfoss pioneered oil-free, magneticbearing technology for air-cooled and water-cooled chillers. It has more oilfree compressors cooling commercial buildings globally than any other manufacturer. The product is an especially good fit, Schneider pointed out, for hotels, hospitals — and data centers. Already, 35% of Danfoss’ business volume is related to data centers. The need for more such centers across the world to support autonomous vehicle applications will help ensure

that demand for Danfoss compressors remains high. So, too, Schneider said, will commitments by businesses and nations to “green restarts” as they rebound from the COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts. “A crisis such as the pandemic enables technology to speed up,” said Schneider, who believes that as the world reboots, it will expect buildings to be made smarter and systems more intelligent. Danfoss’ own Green Restart educational initiative demonstrates how businesses can accelerate the pace of economic recovery and generate sustainable growth. “The COVID-19 crisis has had a severe impact across the globe, not just from a health perspective, but also from societal and economic perspectives,” Danfoss notes on its website. “Alleviating

and recovering from the pandemic must be at the top of anyone’s agenda. We need to boost economies, recreating and creating sustainable jobs and growth.” Schneider shared with OEV stakeholders a video that detailed advantages of Danfoss’ product versus earlier generations of compressors. n B ecause Danfoss compressors are oil free, there is no need for complex oil-management systems. n F reedom from oil-degradation issues results in sustained energy efficiency and consistent performance throughout the lifetime of the chiller. n C entral to the Danfoss compressor is a single rotating part that levitates and does not make contact with other parts. As a result, wear and tear on components is eliminated, and maintenance schedules are relaxed. Downtime and operating costs are reduced. n Integrated variable speed technology makes for load-bearing efficiency. n T he compressors require only low starting current, eliminating costly investment in high-capacity electrical infrastructure. n T he compressors are selfmonitoring and generate reports and alerts; they safeguard themselves from failures that might otherwise result from power outages or extreme fluctuations. n T hey work with established and next-generation refrigerants, ensuring that transitions from old to new are seamless. n A nd, they result in lower energy bills while providing a comfortable and productive environment for building occupants and users. Danfoss Turbocor, a maker of oilfree compressors for climate control applications, is undertaking an expansion, depicted in the rendering at right, that will include development of an advanced manufacturing and R & D facility of approximately 90,000 square feet in size.

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PHOTOS BY LAWRENCE DAVIDSON / RPI FILE PHOTO (BOTTOM LEFT) AND COURTESY OF DANFOSS TURBOCOR

In January, Danfoss announced plans to enlarge at Innovation Park with a $48 million project that will take place in three phases over the next five years. The company said the expansion will result in 239 highpaying jobs in manufacturing and research; 267 construction; and more than 500 indirect permanent jobs. The undertaking first phase will include the development of an advanced manufacturing and research and development facility of approximately 90,000 square feet in size. “We are pleased to bring additional engineering and manufacturing investment to Tallahassee, and we are excited to continue building on our successes here,” Schneider said at the time of the announcement. At present, Danfoss employs 28,000 people worldwide; sells its products in more than 100 countries including its chief markets, the U.S., Germany and China; and operates 28 factories.

At the invitation of Cristina Paredes, the executive director of the TallahasseeLeon County OEV, Schneider listed reasons for the continuing and growing commitment by Danfoss to Tallahassee. He ticked off several ... n Danfoss has assembled a highly skilled team with a record of success in Tallahassee. “We have been meeting and exceeding goals in Tallahassee for 12 years,” Schneider said. n Research and development infrastructure is well-established and strong. n Research and development and production have been co-located in Tallahassee. n The presence of a “magnetic ecosystem” and the largest magnetic lab in the world is “one of the main reasons we are here,” Schneider said. “We use a lot of magnetic material and employ magnetic science. It makes logical sense for us

to be near the kind of expertise that FSU has in that area.” n FAMU-FSU College of Engineering supplies Danfoss with a talent pool to draw upon. n Tallahassee and Leon County have been generous with local incentives. For example, the Blueprint Intergovernmental Agency has committed $2.3 million in sales tax revenue to Danfoss’ expansion project. “We appreciate your leadership, especially your involvement in continuing to push us and challenge us in growing a magnetic cluster,” Paredes told Schneider. “It is very exciting to see a company that located here, less than 15 years ago continue to grow and expand here and shine a spotlight on Tallahassee.” “We are very glad to be anchored in this community,” Schneider said. “We are proud to be here, and we are going to continue to generate jobs and generate excitement.” ● 2021 Tallahassee Innovation & Technology

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CUSTOM CON T EN T

SPERRY & ASSOCIATES

Building facilities and relationships that strengthen Tallahassee

D

anfoss is a well-known company name in Tallahassee, but most might not know what the international firm does. At its location in Innovation Park, the Denmark-based multinational company designs and manufactures oil-free, magnetic bearing compressors for heating and air conditioning. That’s why Danfoss was initially drawn to Tallahassee and its close proximity to their research partner — the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory. Even though the pull of the world’s most powerful magnets compelled Danfoss’ move to Tallahassee, it is the relationships they’ve built since that keeps them here. As one of the biggest economic development success stories in the Capital City this century, Danfoss’ Turbocor manufacturing facility is a quiet operation with an impact worth shouting about. With over

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200 employees in Tallahassee, the company has become a significant provider of careers for highly skilled workers. Soon there will be even more Danfoss jobs coming to the area as the company recently announced a massive expansion project that will double the company’s Tallahassee presence. “We are pleased to bring additional engineering and manufacturing investment to Tallahassee through this expansion project,” said Ricardo Schneider, president of Danfoss Turbocor Compressors. “The Tallahassee community affords us tremendous opportunity to collaborate with world-class researchers in aerodynamics, power electronics and magnetic technologies.” After growing their footprint for nearly two decades, Danfoss’ manufacturing and research campus has become an integral part of the Tallahassee innovation economy. All of which has been designed and built by the locally owned construction firm Sperry & Associates. “Sperry has helped Danfoss achieve its construction goals on a variety of projects over the years because a local design team ensures a quick turnaround on questions and changes,” said Chris Neal, senior manager, facilities with Danfoss. “The design-build process used during our projects has helped us achieve the results we wanted — and on budget.”

Sperry & Associates is a leading commercial and industrial construction company in Tallahassee that specializes in both award-winning design and building practices. They are known across the Southeast for their expertise in pre-engineered metal buildings, which the Danfoss campus was built with. “A company like Danfoss, with such specialized requirements, needed the level of involvement that our designbuild process could provide,” said Jay Bostwick, Vice President of Sales at Sperry & Associates. “We have the capacity to sit down with them and learn everything about their company, which has resulted in both


PHOTOS BY CAROLYN ALLEN PHOTOGRAPHY

functional and beautiful buildings, years of trusted partnership and the promise of future builds.” Landing the opportunity to construct the Danfoss project was a landmark deal for Sperry & Associates. In 2006, when Danfoss first came to Tallahassee, the buildout needs were extensive and the timeline was demanding. With all those realities in play, Sperry’s design-build approach became attractive to Danfoss because of streamlined processes and tighter

budget controls — not to mention Sperry’s excellent reputation from both clients and fellow construction firms. Since the company’s founding in 1973, Sperry & Associates has garnered consistent recognition for exceptional design, attention to detail, personalized service and superior project management throughout the Southeast. With over 70 percent of projects stemming from existing or previous clients, Sperry & Associates earn their reputation from building

strong relationships. The partnership between Sperry & Associates and Danfoss merges local building expertise with international engineering excellence. This combination of innovative technology and exemplary construction has helped bring a spark to the Tallahassee economy in ways that are far-reaching across the globe. “This is the kind of partnership our company strives for,” said Bostwick. “Danfoss not only helped change the trajectory of our firm, they helped grow the entire community.”

4495 CAPITAL CIRCLE NW | (850) 562-1101 | SPERRYCONSTRUCTION.COM 2021 Tallahassee Innovation & Technology

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Biology as Business QuarryBio’s work aids development of drugs and treatments BY DAVID EKRUT, PH.D. // PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAVE BARFIELD

How does a person turn high-resolution protein analysis into saleable products and a viable business? Eric Graben, founder and CEO of QuarryBio, has built an enterprise around the answer to this question. Graben launched QuarryBio in Bloomington, Indiana, and operated from a space at Indiana University for about five years before he had to relocate. He became interested in Tallahassee after his wife secured a position in the English department at Florida State University, but the move to Florida’s capital city would take nearly two years to accomplish. “It wasn’t a slam dunk,” he said. “A bunch of things had to come together for this to happen.” Initially, there was no wet lab space. A wet lab is a facility capable of housing biological materials, such as cells, proteins and viruses for use in experimentation and analysis. For QuarryBio, it is a crucial component. “You can’t just move to some place where you are going to fail,” Graben said. “When inquiring 20

about a wet lab, they told me, ‘Oh yeah, there are some green fields here if you want to build your own building.’ And that was a little out of my budget.” He spent time exploring the region. The Gainesville area is a major incubator for biological technologies and would be a lot closer to his family, now established in Tallahassee, than Indiana. Many facilities and companies have a relationship with the University of Florida, making the area attractive to startups looking for a place to land. The Sid Martin Incubator, a hub of biological technology innovation, was high on Graben’s list of possibilities. That was before he met Ron Miller, executive director of the Leon County Research and Development Authority at Innovation Park, who was able to secure the lab space Graben needed

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Eric Graben, the founder of BioQuarry, demonstrates the use of a serological pipette in transferring cell culture media — the red liquid — to a container.

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In departing Indiana, Eric Graben considered locating his business at an incubator in Gainesville before Innovation Park’s Ron Miller found suitable space for QuarryBio in Tallahassee. Graben and his team conduct research focused on cell membrane-binding interactions within living cultures.

to continue his work. Graben had his new home — the Collins Building at FSU. Graben now has a courtesy appointment with FSU and collaborates on projects with the proteomics lab in the College of Medicine at FSU and the College of Biological Sciences. That appointment made Tallahassee all the more attractive to Graben. It gave him access to world-class libraries and facilities that have figured in research and the development of services provided by QuarryBio.

About protein analysis

For those without advanced science degrees, it might be difficult to see a use for a deeper understanding of the structural composition of a specific protein, but these infinitesimal components are responsible for guiding our biological processes, from breathing and digesting foods to using muscles or fighting off a virus. Adaptor proteins comprise the receptors on T cells, a vital component of the immune system, responsible for fighting off infections. 22

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Understanding signaling processes aids in the development of drugs and vaccines. Graben’s niche is a highly specialized one. He works primarily with pharmaceutical companies. “If they are developing a drug antibody, the developers want to know where specifically does that antibody bind to its target,” Graben explained. Understanding such interactions is a critical step in the development of drugs and treatments of ailments. Graben discovered his business opportunity in the course of his research. “It wasn’t some initial vision,” he said. “You learn as you go, right? At one point, we were trying to find a way to generate high-resolution data for protein structure and membrane-binding interactions. But when we went to some of the service providers who offered that, they wanted $50,000 per project.” Motivated to discover an affordable way to bring high-resolution analyses to groups with limited resources, Graben began to develop his technologies, using pipets and lab space, rather than

expensive services. This led Graben to Dr. Richard Vachet at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where joint research demonstrated the effectiveness of his technologies. After proof of concept was accomplished, Graben realized that “if we can just sell all the agents in a kit, then with instruments (such as a mass spectrometer) very commonly used in biotech labs, you could have everything right there. Just follow the instructions — A, B, C, D — and you’d be able to generate high-resolution structure and binding data.” With QuarryBio’s main product, sample proteins are run through a pipeline of algorithms buried in proprietary software to produce highresolution results revealing subtle changes in protein structures and identifying the locations where the changes occur. In response to the pandemic, QuarryBio placed their research and development on hold and opened its lab space, working with breweries to manufacture high-volume isopropyl alcohol for use as hand sanitizer in large facilities. Recognizing that they possessed resources and equipment capable of providing aid to the community, they jumped on the opportunity to help. Graben’s team is now focused on expanding their biotech work to include capturing cell membrane binding interactions within living cell cultures. That effort could revolutionize many areas of research in biology and immunology. ●


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Bridging the Innovation Gap New incubator projected to be regional asset BY STEVE BORNHOFT

About the time that Ron Miller started work at Innovation Park, Kristin Dozier, then the chairman of the Leon County Commission, had undertaken an assessment of the Tallahassee area’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. An important component was missing, she concluded. In an ecosystem in nature, higher-order species need to be nurtured. They don’t enter upon the world ready to fend for themselves. Business behaves in much the same way. The absence, then, of a nurturing incubator was a significant gap. The county proceeded to expedite the creation of Domi Station, a collaborative space designed to equip and support entrepreneurs in launching and scaling their enterprises. 24

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Domi Station would and continues to be helpful in consequential ways to early stage startups, in particular, and also growing concerns. “But it didn’t solve all of the problems,” said Miller, the executive director at Innovation Park, which promotes the Tallahassee region’s research and development assets and supports the recruitment, launching and growth of private companies. “We did our own feasibility study for an incubator that

These are all going to be resources that you will be unable to find anywhere else in the region. We are here to support the entire region.” — Ron Miller, executive director of the Leon County Research and Development Authority at Innovation Park


PHOTOS BY LAWRENCE DAVIDSON / RPI FILE PHOTO (DOMI STATION), SEVENTYFOUR / ISTOCK / GETTY IMAGES PLUS AND COURTESY OF INNOVATION PARK (MILLER)

A new business incubator at Innovation Park will be equipped with 3D printers like the one pictured at left. The shared workspace and programs at Domi Station have especially benefited early stage entrepreneurs.

would offer more than office space and educational programs.” That study pointed out the need for a mixed-use incubator and the need for wet-lab space, the absence of which could be measured in lost businesses. “We’ve had companies who went to the University of Florida’s Sid Martin Biotech Incubator,” Miller said. He noted that Reamonn Soto, the developer of high-temperature sensors for turbines, who received technology-development grants from Innovation Park and FSU while in Tallahassee, set up shop in Daytona Beach. Eric Graben of the biotech startup QuarryBio shopped Alachua County before choosing Tallahassee. “He wound up in one of our facilities, but it took us a long time to get him here,” Miller said.

But help of a game-changing sort is on the way. A funding package has been assembled that will make possible the construction and outfitting of a $17 million, 40,000-square-foot incubator equipped with wet labs, dry labs, assembly line areas, an electronics lab, machine shops, a wood shop and 3D printers. “These are all going to be resources that you will be unable to find anywhere else in the region,” Miller said. “We are here to support the entire region.” The federal Economic Development Administration has pledged $10.2 million to the project. The FSU Research Foundation and the Tallahassee-Leon County Office of Economic Vitality (OEV) are each contributing matches of $2.5 million. And Innovation Park is chipping in $1.8 million — and a

lot of sweat equity. Further, Miller said Innovation Park will be looking for others to participate in defraying operating costs for a time until the lab becomes self-sustaining. “We’re not issuing any debt,” Miller said. “We want this thing to stand on its own two feet, and based on most incubator models, that’s an imperative.” To speed progress toward that goal, Innovation Park already has begun building a pipeline of companies who will be projected to enter the incubator when it opens in September 2023. Miller has been educating entrepreneurs about how to qualify for seed money made available by federal Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer grant programs. The programs match private-sector expertise and products with federal needs. 2021 Tallahassee Innovation & Technology

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CONCEPTUAL RENDERING COURTESY OF INNOVATION PARK

viable businesses and create jobs,” Miller said. “That’s the incubator in a nutshell.” Miller, who has become a student of the life cycle of the entrepreneur, discovered years ago that germination leading to incubation can occur in high school, even earlier. In 1979, he graduated from a Junior Achievement program in Indianapolis, and he has served as a board member and chair at Junior Achievement of the Big Bend. Miller described a “continuum of services” whereby high school students participating in a pitch competition go on to become students at the Jim Moran College of Entrepreneurship at FSU; participate as early stage entrepreneurs in programs at Domi Station; and proceed to the North Florida Innovation Lab if Conceptual drawing depicts layout of a 40,000-square-foot incubator to be developed their specialty makes them appropriate at Innovation Park. The federal Economic Development Administration has pledged to that facility. $10.2 million to the project’s $17 million overall cost. Eventually, Miller said, Innovation Park may become home to a “graduation space” that will host businesses engaged in actual manufacturing, but it must first facilities and programs at the labs,” Miller Such funding is helpful to enterprises get the incubator off the ground. said of Lickson. who might otherwise be developing Too, he said that the community at Miller, who holds a degree in business technologies for which there may or may large might well provide manufacturing administration from Indiana University, not ultimately be a market and who, as a space. said Innovation Park is working to define result, have a hard time attracting private “We’re not trying to take the place of the future lab’s marketplace niche and investment until they are proven. the real estate companies,” Miller said. “If competitive advantages. After the need for a mixed-use we can start producing companies that “We look at this as a very entrepreneurial incubator in Tallahassee became create jobs, that will increase the demand enterprise,” he said. “We have to be painfully apparent, Miller visited for space and create opportunities for concerned about revenues and expenses incubators around the country. private developers in town.” and what’s the market, what’s the need. Personnel at the University of Central Tallahassee may not What are we going to be Florida Business Incubation Program become the next Silicon good at? What are we impressed upon him the desirability of At the end of Valley, but it may become going to be the best at? hiring an incubator director before the the day, we the Magnetic Capital of Like any other startup facility is built. want to take the World, an identity company, it’s a lot of Michael Tentnowski, at one all of this tech that is being created in that OEV is promoting. work. A lot of three steps time Innovation Park’s director of the community and forward, two steps back. entrepreneurship, was tabbed to be that “We will be our own at our universities We’ve been working on guy. Then, in March, Miller announced cluster, our own job creand at Innovation Park and connect it this since 2013.” in a press release that Bill Lickson had ator,” Miller said. “We are to entrepreneurs who The bottom line? been hired as the new director of North looking for hard-science, will, in turn, build “At the end of the day, Florida Innovation Labs. high-potential-impact viable businesses and create jobs. That’s we want to take all of this Lickson had been serving as the companies with a need the incubator in a tech that is being created executive director of the Tallahassee for specialized resourcnutshell.” — Ron in the community and business incubator Domi Station. es. Our entrepreneurial Miller, executive director of the Leon at our universities and at “His expertise and natural sense of ecosystem has come a County Research Innovation Park and concollaboration, community and team long way. We don’t want and Development nect it to entrepreneurs building within the entrepreneurial Tallahassee to be a bestAuthority at Innovation Park who will, in turn, build ecosystem will be critical as we build kept secret anymore.” ●


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Business development manager T.J. Lewis is committed to helping Tallahassee attract people who can fill the kinds of jobs that the industries targeted by the Office of Economic Vitality have to offer.

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Data Control

Dissemination of information is key to attracting businesses STORY BY STEVE BORNHOFT // PHOTOGRAPHY BY LINDSEY MASTERSON

In conversation with real estate brokers, personnel at the Tallahassee-Leon County Office of Economic Vitality became aware of a disturbing reality. Listed on the real estate platform that forms part of the Enterprise Florida website were properties throughout peninsular Florida and the Panhandle, but none from in or around Tallahassee. Had there had been an innocent glitch or oversight? Brokers suggested otherwise. “They told us that they reached out and tried to get their properties on there, but the criteria were too strict and the barrier to entry was too high,” said T.J. Lewis, a business development manager with OEV. OEV contacted Enterprise Florida, the Orlandobased economic development organization for the State of Florida, and had the same experience, according to Lewis. He said that when OEV asked how to go about getting Tallahassee-area properties listed, it was met with a non-answer of an answer. But OEV wasn’t done. Lewis, himself, brought plenty of knowledge and experience to bear on the problem. After earning a bachelor’s degree in real estate, Lewis went to work for the state Division of Lands in 2007 and moved on to administer the real

estate portfolio for the state Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles. He resigned his state job to run for a seat on the Leon County Commission in 2016, but his bid failed, and he went to work for NAI Talcor, a commercial real estate agency, before resuming state employment as a reviewer of comprehensive plans. In that role, he got to know folks with the Tallahassee-Leon County Planning Department and again departed his state job to work there. In 2019, Cristina Paredes, the director of OEV, tempted Lewis over to her shop. Even as Lewis was embarking upon his first state job, he was building a website, urbantallahassee.com, that was devoted to economic development news in Tallahassee. Lewis did so, he said, as a computer hobbyist with a passion for site development. “I made a reputation for myself through my hobby more than I had with my career,” Lewis said. To overcome the competitive disadvantage that Enterprise Florida had created for Tallahassee, OEV partnered with the company that powered the Enterprise Florida platform and integrated that platform into its own website. The result?

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“We built not only a robust listing service for our own community, but everything that we put on our website also appears on the Enterprise Florida site,” Lewis said. “It felt good.” The impact of the workaround was felt almost immediately. “Within a week, we were getting calls from site selectors looking at Florida,” Lewis said, “people whom we had never heard from before.” After OEV launched its real estate platform in January, its leadership team had a meeting with local brokers to deliver good news. “Now they are able to get their listings onto the Enterprise Florida website through our website, and it’s free of charge,” said Lewis, noting that the cost to establish an account on a national real estate platform can cost thousands of dollars and that additional charges are assessed on a per-listing basis. The effort to get Tallahassee represented on the Enterprise Florida site was consistent with Lewis’ role as a business development manager at OEV. Among the organization’s four industry targets, Lewis concentrates on health care, professional services/ IT and applied sciences/innovation. Kevin Gehrke, who also works for OEV in a business development role, focuses on the fourth target: applied sciences/ manufacturing. Gehrke migrated south to Florida from Michigan and worked for Danfoss Turbocor before OEV put the arm on him. Lewis, Gehrke and OEV business intelligence manager Richard Fetchik also work in concentration areas related to employers’ needs. Lewis specializes in land, Gehrke focuses on talent and Fetchik on capital. The talent/labor piece can be a critical one. “One of the reasons that we don’t land some of the industries that we have targeted is because we don’t have a skills match,” Lewis said. “We have low unemployment, and those who are unemployed do not have experience 30

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in manufacturing. We have to start identifying and attracting to our area people who can fill the jobs that our target industries have to offer.” In those regards, Lewis singles out the work of Diverse Computing’s Lester Hunt whose initiative, Tallahassee Welcomes U, strives to link university students with tech companies looking to fill jobs in their areas of study. “He acts as a conduit,” Lewis said. “He’s a perfect example of what we are trying to do community-wide: attract and retain talent, slow the brain drain.” Too often, Lewis said, university faculty who come from out of the area to teach at FSU or FAMU don’t get to know the Tallahassee community and steer job-seeking seniors and graduates to opportunities out of town. The people, he said, who are most likely to remain in

jobs in Tallahassee are those with ties to the community. Lewis emphasizes that OEV is as committed to helping established businesses grow as it is to recruiting new ones to town. It employs a marketing analytics program to the benefit of any business with plans to land or expand in Tallahassee. The program, Lewis explained, uses data tied to credit card information that is harvested from the “computers we all carry around in our pockets,” that is, cellphones. “There are companies that mine information about your age, social status, your income, where you work,” Lewis said. “We can tell a business where its customers are coming from and where they get their information so they can target their marketing efforts using the


Innovation & Technology

in Florida’s Capital

609 patents

have been awarded to Tallahassee individuals and firms in areas from organic compounds and chemistry to nanotechnology and pharmaceuticals over the past 15 years.

In the past five years, FSU and FAMU have awarded a combined

2,263 degrees in computer and information technologies

Tallahassee-Leon County Office of Economic Vitality director Cristina Paredes shares a light moment with business development manager T.J. Lewis at Cascades Park. Lewis achieved notoriety as a website developer, worked in commercial real estate and reviewed comprehensive plans for the state before joining OEV.

right media. And we can use that data to help a business — even a small one like a florist or a cigar shop — know where best to locate so that it has the greatest chance of succeeding.” Lewis conceded that the program presents a “creep factor,” but “communities are using it and we decided to join them.” Lewis has become involved, too, in enhancing the OEV website — oevforbusiness.org — with the addition of virtual site tours. He noted one that showcases Innovation Park and its business incubator project.

With the pandemic restricting travel, “a lot of site selectors are having to shortlist possibilities without making visits,” Lewis said. Lewis intends that the OEV be the first point of contact for companies considering Tallahassee and said that with few exceptions, it is. “If we are not the first, then companies are probably making contact with city or county leaders who refer them to us,” Lewis said. “Rarely does a business opening happen that we hadn’t heard was coming.” ●

In 2020, software publishers, data processing and hosting, computer systems design and similar technical services accounted for a gross regional product of

$636.5 million and 4,512 jobs In 2020, there were

5,959 jobs

in the computer and information field in Tallahassee, with 639 average annual openings, with median earnings of

$64,593

Sources: US Patent & Trademark Office; Florida Board of Governors, www.flbog. edu/resources/data-analytics/dashboards; EMSI 2021

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GovTech Heats Up Investment in government-focused technology surges amid pandemic BY T.S. STRICKLAND

Bureaucrats, beware. Citizens, rejoice. DMV lines, disperse. The robots are coming, and they just might get your tags renewed before lunch. At least, that’s the upshot of a new report from insights and advisory firm StateUp, which paints a rosy picture for the global GovTech industry.

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expected to go toward software. That’s an 8.2 percent increase over the prior year — and a good indication that the landscape is shifting. Tallahassee, the seat of government for one of the nation’s most populous states, is home to a small but impressive list of startups that are poised to benefit from these trends.

A 70-year-old startup

Government is an enormous market, and there is a significant upside for entrepreneurs who can gain a foothold. That said, finding such traction can be difficult. Government sales cycles are long, procurement processes are byzantine and payoffs can be uncertain. Success in this space has traditionally demanded what’s known as “patient capital,” and venture capitalists are not known for their patience. Perhaps that’s why the majority of GovTech firms are still privately held. One of these firms, Tallahassee’s Municode, offers a master class in the virtues of patience. The company was founded by George Langford in 1952, long before the term “venture capitalist” had even been coined.

PHOTOS BY SAIGE ROBERTS / RPI FILE PHOTO

Investors have pumped nearly $700 million into the sector since last year, according to the report. This influx of capital represents a seachange for an industry that investors have traditionally viewed with skepticism. That wariness is dissipating now, as governments rush to digitize their operations in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and investors reach for civic-minded deal-flow after a year of political and social unrest. Worldwide, governments are expected to spend more than $450 billion on information technology in 2021, according to Gartner. More than $112 billion of this spending is

Prepress/production supervisor Starlett Lovel works in this 2018 photo in the printing room at the Municode facility in Tallahassee.


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Langford stormed the beaches of Normandy during World War II before obtaining his law certificate from the University of Virginia. After graduation, he took a job with a legal publishing company, where he stumbled onto his first invention: a smarter way of binding codes of ordinances. Realizing the idea had potential, Langford struck out on his own. He put 100,000 miles on his Oldsmobile, traveling from town to town soliciting new business. His very first client was Leon County. Today, the company serves more than 4,200 local governments in all 50 states. “My dad (who sits on Municode’s board) calls us a 70-year-old startup,” CEO Eric Grant said. “We were the second internet connection to Tallahassee, and we were the first company to put city codes online.” Municode has continued to evolve in the years since they moved their codebooks onto the web. “About five years ago, we started looking at the landscape from a broader perspective than just codification,” Grant said. “We started at our roots and asked ourselves what our founder’s life work really was. And that was to strengthen democracy.” With this insight in hand, Municode began acquiring other GovTech startups in 2014 and integrating them into a new, unified offering called the “Circle of Governance.” 34

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Municode acquired four companies in as many years, expanding their core offering into web development, document management and government meetings. Grant said Municode was actively seeking new acquisition targets and considered “about 100” such prospects each year. “The trust we’ve built over the last 70 years enables us to continue offering new services to our clients,” Grant said. “It allows us to have that conversation.”

Municode president Eric Grant at the business’s offices in Tallahassee. At top right, a sample of Municode’s work — a website developed for the City of Freeport.

An industry built on trust

The importance of trust is also top of mind for Mindy Perkins, CEO of Tallahassee-based election software provider VR Systems. “A lot of the elections community relies on trust,” Perkins said. “It’s all about relationships and the history you’ve had with your existing customer base. Even though there are thousands of election officials, it’s a small community. They see how their vendors are providing products and services to them. A lot of it is word of mouth.” VR Systems was founded in 1992 by Jane and David Watson. Perkins, their very first employee, was hired in 2001. “The election offices here in Florida were very much underserved when we started,” Perkins said. “They were still using DOS.” The Watsons recognized the potential for software to streamline this work. Their

Security was something on which many in the election industry were focused, but it wasn’t something people talked about. VR Systems has been helping lead the way in that since 2016. Not only are we more secure now, but the elections system is more secure, as a whole.” — Mindy Perkins, CEO of Tallahassee-based election software provider VR Systems


PHOTOS BY SAIGE ROBERTS / RPI FILE PHOTO (MUNICODE) AND COURTESY OF VR SYSTEMS

first product was an electronic voter registration system. Today, the company offers a full suite of related software and hardware products — from custom websites to e-learning software for poll workers to ballot printing. “The one thing we don’t do is count the votes,” Perkins said. VR Systems signed their first customer, Leon County, in 1993. Today, they serve election officials in North Carolina, Indiana, Illinois, Texas and all 67 Florida counties. The company is looking to expand into several new states, though Perkins said the patchwork nature of election laws meant the company had to do so very thoughtfully. “We’re very strategic about the states we target,” Perkins said. “We have to understand the requirements ahead of time — who’s buying the system and what their needs are. In some locations, primarily the Northeast and Midwest, it is a municipality that runs elections. In Florida, it’s counties. In Georgia, the election officials are in the counties, but they use state products. It really varies depending on the laws in each state.” In addition to a complicated sales process, VR Systems and other GovTech firms must contend with an increasingly treacherous cybersecurity landscape. Perkins knows this all too well. VR Systems was targeted by Russian military hackers on the eve of the 2016 presidential election. A leaked NSA document outlining that operation was published by The Intercept in 2017 and resulted in a bevy of bad press for the company.

The document suggested that at least one computer belonging to a VR Systems employee had been compromised and that the Russians had used this beachhead to send emails containing malware to more than 100 election officials. Perkins was quick to dismiss these reports as “misinformation.” “We were a target of foreign actors,” she said, “and that’s all it was. Many have been targets for many, many years, and our name was in a document that was shared in a manner that it wasn’t supposed to be.” Perkins said the company has used the episode as an educational opportunity for customers and a chance to advocate for increased coordination among federal officials, election supervisors and government contractors on matters of cybersecurity. “Security was something on which many in the election industry were focused,” she said, “but it wasn’t something people talked about. VR Systems has been helping lead the way in that since 2016. Not only are we more secure now, but the elections system is more secure, as a whole.”

Loyal customers

Despite the high stakes, Perkins and Grant both said working in GovTech offered unique advantages — customer retention being near the top of the list. “If you provide a great product and

great service and take care of these customers, they will remain extremely loyal,” Grant said. “Our retention rate is over 99.9 percent. That’s remarkable.” Perkins agreed. “We have annual contracts,” she said, “so, theoretically, a customer could halt doing business with us. There are other vendors to choose from. We’re not the only one, but it is a complicated process to switch to a new vendor.” In addition to being very loyal, Grant said that governments were also just very good customers. “Governments are honest,” he said. “They pay their bills. They have taxing authority, so when you deliver a product to them, you know you are going to get paid.” And, then, there are the intangible benefits. “When you are helping a local entity, you really are purpose driven,” Grant said. “You’re doing something bigger than yourself. At any given time, if you were to add up the number of citizens who are able to access the law through our products, it is well over 200 million.” With strong tailwinds in the GovTech sector, both Grant and Perkins see ample room for growth. “I’m extremely bullish on the GovTech space,” Grant said. “There are well over 25,000 local governments in the United States. The green space out there is just enormous.” ●

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KYRA SOLUTIONS Guiding Government Digital Transformation 36

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CUTSOM CONT ENT

I

n 2020, the world changed; most businesses and services deemed “non-essential” came to a halt. One part of the equation that could not afford to shut down was government. Government had to continue operating but under unchartered health and safety rules that we are all familiar with today. Any and all technology projects at that time had to rapidly change their implementation methods. Inoffice collaboration was suspended, and all staff had to work remotely. Just because the world seemed to stop moving, it did not mean that deadlines were erased — it was up to agencies and vendors to ensure that projects were delivered on time and as promised. State agencies in Tallahassee were committed to carrying out the promises of their mission even in the face of this crisis; many quickly reacted to this global threat at the state level without any delays or interruption to critical services. Kyra Solutions saw the dedication firsthand with all of their clients; some of the firm’s employees were even named as “essential contractors” to ensure the vital work was carried out. In the more than 20 years of being a solution provider to the state, Kyra was witness to the neverbefore-seen resiliency and dedication exhibited by their state agency partners during this unprecedented health crisis, including putting themselves in harm’s way. One prominent example was with the Florida Department of Health’s Office of Medical Marijuana Use (OMMU). The mission of the project was clear: to create an all-in-one compliance, inspection, licensing and regulatory offering for the on-site inspectors. “Rapid deployment and COVID-adaptable inspection tools were no longer a nice-to-have but a need-to-have,” stated Prashant Mehta, Vice President of Kyra. By eliminating manual paper-based processes, the firm created a single source of truth and transparent, scalable, centralized processes. OMMU stakeholders wanted a better method to put in place because this was a new industry, and laws could be changing that would impact how the agency regulates. Hence, OMMU needed to be flexible and scalable.

Instead of developing a traditional, custombuilt system with the same requirements, which would have taken two years and have been very difficult to maintain, Kyra leveraged the world-class and secure Salesforce government cloud platform, thus delivering exceptional outcomes in six months. Scalability was top of mind when designing this solution; as the industry grows, the state will have a solution that keeps pace. Overall, the solution seamlessly manages inspection scheduling, processing and data — all while aligning with statutory requirements. In terms of automation, Kyra was able to streamline the office’s inspection workflows. This also broke down data silos, creating a worldview of the industry. Another great example is the Florida Department of Environmental Protection’s effort to complete a software solution for air quality monitoring. COVID did not stop them from completing the solution that is crucial to their mission. Kyra’s team of solution creators enjoyed collaborating with the FDEP staff virtually on this important solution. “Kyra Solutions has worked exclusively with government clients for nearly two decades,” stated Rebekah Dorworth, President of Kyra. “We understand government agencies, their environments, their pain points and their delights. With the domain expertise and technologists we brought to the table, Kyra was able to define the agency challenges, draw up goals and implement truly valuable solutions.”

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Risky Business Forecast bright for Tallahassee’s weather-related startups BY T.S. STRICKLAND

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PHOTOS BY LINDSEY MASTERSON

The spring of 2019 was one of the wettest planting seasons ever recorded for farmers across the Midwestern United States. With fields pummelled by rain and tractors mired in muck, analysts predicted the year’s corn harvest would be dismal, and prices for corn futures shot through the roof. If you were in the business of growing or trading corn at the time, you probably weren’t eager to sell your product — unless you were listening to Ryan Truchelut. Truchelut is president of Tallahasseebased startup WeatherTiger. In 2019, he had just begun field-testing a new agricultural yield model with a select group of customers. His model, which used hyperlocal weather data to predict corn and soybean yields down to the county level, suggested the common wisdom was wrong and that the 2019 harvest would exceed expectations. “We were able to take that insight to our clients and tell them to take the favorable price while they could,” Truchelut said. “When the USDA report hit mid-August, it was very close to what we’d predicted. The market dropped 12 percent in a matter of days.” Twelve percent is a lot of beans if you are a commodities trader. In fact, corn and soybeans, the two largest agricultural commodities in the United States, support a combined $15 billion industry, and the movement of all that money hinges largely on one thing: the weather. “There is a lot of speculative activity around these commodities,” Truchelut said. “They can be very volatile markets and can rip your head off if you don’t know what you’re doing.” It turns out there are a lot of people — not just farmers and traders — who will pay to avoid having their heads ripped off. In fact, business is booming for Truchelut and a growing army of mercenary weathermen like him. Weather intelligence is a $7 billion industry in the United States, and it is expected to quintuple in size in coming years, according to a 2017 report by the

National Weather Service. Tallahassee is well-positioned to capitalize on this growth, and a number of related startups have already put down roots in the capital city.

Lightning in a bottle

For decades, the weather industry was dominated by just three big players: AccuWeather, DTN and The Weather Company — the organization that, until recently, controlled cable television staple The Weather Channel. This comfortable oligopoly has been challenged in recent years, with insurgent brands angling for their share of a growing market. This meteorological melee is the result of two primary forces. First, the impending climate crisis and its advance guard of devastating cyclones, wildfires and heatwaves has buoyed demand for products and services that can mitigate weather-related risks. Second, a range of technological advances — in drones, satellites, sensors, artificial intelligence and cloud computing — have made it easier than ever to collect weather data and transform it into increasingly accurate, specific and actionable business insights. This combustive blend of surging demand and tech innovation has led to an explosion of startups, mergers and acquisitions. Tracxn, a financial research firm, has sunk more than half a billion dollars worth of investment in weatherrelated ventures in recent years. Meanwhile, existing businesses are scrambling to consolidate market share. IBM dropped $2 billion to purchase The Weather Company’s non-cable assets in 2016. That deal was followed by the 2017 acquisition of DTN for $900 million and their subsequent merger with Europe’s Meteogroup in 2019.

← WeatherTiger’s Ryan Truchelut takes readings from a Swiss army knife of a weather device, the Kestrel 3500, which is a combination thermometer, barometer and hygrometer anemometer.

Strong academic roots

All this activity bodes well for Tallahassee, which is somewhat of a hub for weather- and risk-related concerns. Florida State University’s departments of Risk Management and Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science are among the best in their fields. Florida also has one of the largest insurance markets in the country — thanks to its expansive, hurricaneprone coastline — and the regulators who govern that market are based in Tallahassee. “Tallahassee is a really good place to have this kind of business,” Truchelut said, “because it’s one of the few places in the world that is producing people with the kind of training you need to grow a business related to the weather.” Truchelut should know. He obtained his doctorate in meteorology from FSU 2021 Tallahassee Innovation & Technology

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Sky’s the limit

While Powell’s entrepreneurial path took him out of government, a third local, weather-related startup is focused on getting their technology into regulators’ hands. WeatherSTEM, founded by FSU grad Ed Mansouri, sells weather stations and decision support software to clients in government, athletics, agriculture and other industries. One of their weather stations sits atop the Las Vegas Raiders’ 40

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FSU graduate Ed Mansouri founded WeatherSTEM, which deals in weather systems and software that can dictate decisions about how events are conducted.

brand-new, $2 billion stadium in Nevada. The wind speed measurements from that device control when the stadium’s enormous retractable ceiling is closed. While projects like the one in Nevada attract the most press, WeatherSTEM’s largest client is actually Florida’s Division of Emergency Management. Lawmakers are paying the company close to $1 million each year to deploy weather stations to remote areas throughout the state. The stations are wind-tested up to 185 mph, powered via solar panels and equipped with cellular transmitters that beam detailed atmospheric measurements into space every 800 milliseconds. “We’re trying to provide a situational awareness system that helps our emergency responders with critical decision-making before, during and after a storm,” Mansouri said. WeatherSTEM is in its second year of working with Florida, and Mansouri has his sights set on expansion.

“We think the system we’ve created is unique,” he said. “We’re looking to do a very good job here in Florida, so we can use that as a model to monetize in other places.” Mansouri said he saw plenty of other industries that could benefit from WeatherSTEM’s services, as well. “One of our opportunities has also been one of our challenges,” he said. “We’ve found a number of different industries that have uses for our technology, but, from a business point of view, what is our focus?” Truchelut echoed that sentiment, noting that there were plenty of “blue ocean” opportunities in the weather intelligence sector. “Every business has a logistical challenge where the weather is going to impact their operations in some way,” he said. “For an increasing number of businesses, it makes sense to work one on one with a meteorologist to determine what their stress points are and how to mitigate them.” ●

PHOTO BY BRUCE PALMER / RPI FILE PHOTO

in 2015, the same year he and CEO Erica Staehling started WeatherTiger. Staehling, who is married to Truchelut, obtained her undergraduate degree from FSU before receiving a Ph.D. in oceanic and atmospheric sciences from Princeton. Truchelut and Staehling aren’t the only FSU grads building weatherrelated businesses. Mark Powell, who received a Ph.D. in meteorology from FSU in 1988, sold his startup, HWind, in 2015 — fewer than 24 months after starting the company. Powell had developed a way of mapping the maximum winds a hurricane created at any location, in nearreal-time. These wind-field maps could be compared with those created by a risk modeling company to validate their assumptions or used by catastrophe bond issuers to determine payouts immediately after a storm had passed. HWind was ultimately acquired by its very first customer — a global behemoth called Risk Management Solutions — though Powell, who stayed on as RMS’ vice president of model development, is quick to point out that his company wasn’t an overnight success. “I had the benefit of more than 20 years of research and becoming kind of the leading expert in this area,” he said. Powell perfected his mapping technology while working at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and then worked with the agency’s office of technology transfer to move his innovations into the private sector.


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Owning Her Place at the Table FSU grad Cristina Paredes spearheads economic development efforts BY DAVID EKRUT, PH.D. // PHOTOGRAPHY BY LINDSEY MASTERSON

Cristina Paredes, director of the Tallahassee-Leon County Office of Economic Vitality, grew up in Fort Myers and first came to Tallahassee while in high school to participate in the page and messenger program at the Florida House of Representatives. For a week during the 60-day regular session, Paredes shadowed local officials and was influenced to attend Florida State University “to be in and around the legislative process.” Paredes’ father is a UPS driver and worked hard to impress upon her the importance of education. She is a first-generation college graduate, an achievement that she said would not have happened without the support and encouragement of her parents. They “always gave me the freedom to ask the questions that I needed to ask to learn and grow and push boundaries,” Paredes said. Their nickname for her is Missy, and she knows, “even to this day, if mom calls me ‘Cristina,’ I’ve gotta pay attention.” Paredes said her peers would be surprised to learn that she was shy as a child and teen. Her first job was as a customer service rep at Camping World in her hometown. She was motivated to go to work because she wanted a leather jacket. Never one to waste a life lesson, she learned the value of saving money made by selling camping gear, President Club memberships and RV supplies throughout most of her time in high school. 42

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“I learned a lot about sewer supplies for RVs,” she said — and she got that leather jacket. All experiences are useful, especially to a young professional on the rise, but Paredes attributes her greatest successes to her mentors. Early on, she wanted to work in state government, and she secured internships, one with a lobbyist and others related to different committees during session. Then, while working on her master’s degree, she took two classes taught by Leon County administrator Vince Long and deputy administrator Alan Rosenzweig and realized that “the way to impact people’s lives the quickest was at the local level.” Her first job on the path to her current career was an internship spent working with Long and Rosenzweig and alongside Ben Pingree, who today is the director of the county’s Department of Planning, Land Management and Community Enhancement (PLACE). “Taking that internship at the county, never would I have thought that 16 years later, I would be one, still in Tallahassee, and two, doing economic development for our community,” Paredes said.


Sometimes, she said, success can result from “just being in the right place at the right time and having conversations with people who are willing to listen.” She said her many great mentors are too numerous to list, but noted that two with continuing impact on her are Steve Evans, a retired IBM executive, and Gray Swoope with VisionFirst Advisors. Both, she said, are always willing to assist her with difficult problems and to help answer tough questions. As a sometimes counselor herself, she advises young women professionals to remember that “you’ve earned your seat at the table, and deep down, you have to own that seat that you’ve earned. A lot of times as women, we tend to keep our places small at the table rather than owning the whole space.” Recently, the city and county adopted their first-ever, long-term economic development strategic plan, whose development Paredes’ office oversaw. “Economic development is a team sport,” she frequently says. “You have to have a great community, great leaders and great partners to help execute it.” Paredes believes Tallahassee has all of that, as well as the assets necessary to grow its economy. Although prevented from discussing them due to confidentiality agreements, she said many great economic development projects are in the works. When she isn’t working to champion new or growing businesses, Paredes bikes with her children, hikes area trails and engages in all aspects of baseball with her family. Her father taught her how to chart plays on a baseball scorecard, something she still does at FSU games. ●

For Tallahassee-Leon County Office of Economic Development director Cristina Paredes, internships worked during legislative sessions were the first steps along a path that led to working at the local level to improve the life of a community. 2021 Tallahassee Innovation & Technology

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Sensatek Heats Up

While pursuing a degree at Florida A&M University, Soto discovered a problem. When engines overheat, they can break down. This becomes a major dilemma in energy and avionics, where system failures can be costly. Gas-powered turbines account for approximately 38.4 percent of the energy produced in the United States. For example, Shell uses an aircraft engine on liquified natural gas platforms, generating $10 million a day in revenue. Recently, a blade failure led to an engine being offline for more than 30 days, costing Shell more than $300 million. Soto’s technology is designed to prevent these BY DAVID EKRUT, PH.D. costly failures. And though most of the initial financial support for Sensatek came from outside Tallahassee, he believes the capital city is ripe for Reamonn Soto is the founder and CEO of Sensatek, aspiring entrepreneurs. a producer of wireless gas turbine sensors, which “Tallahassee is a hidden gem for new business,” Soto said, noting its various resources for startups. measure temperatures on stationary and rotating The Small Business Development Center at blades. The business today serves clients around the FAMU has advisors who help entrepreneurs start world in scientific fields including energy, aviation and a business and who lead workshops that address aeronautics, but Soto got his start in Tallahassee. customer service skills, government contracting and the writing of business plans. Innovation Park and Domi Station provide an affordable work environment with influencers capable of navigating many facets of new business. Soto also found resources at the Leon County Research Development Authority Tallahassee is a and the Greater Tallahassee Area hidden gem for Chamber of Commerce and new business. received one-on-one advice from … [It’s a] really good place where ideas are leads groups and the Office of incubated. It’s a ‘small’ Economic Vitality, which does place but has a lot of a lot of matchmaking, bringing giants who live there.” — Reamonn Soto, innovators and investors together. founder and CEO “Half of gaining knowledge of Sensatek is knowing where to find it, and oftentimes when opportunities come up, these groups can help connect the dots,” Soto said. Tallahassee isn’t Silicon Valley, but Soto rates it a “really good place where ideas are incubated. It’s a ‘small’ place but has a lot of giants who live there.” He praised his mentors, including Chris Eldred, founder and CEO of TeligentEMS; Larry Lynch in the Entrepreneurial Excellence Program; Keith Bowers at SBDC; and Ron Miller from the Leon County Research Development Authority. 44

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PHOTOS COURTESY OF SENSATEK

Born in Tallahassee, sensor producer attracts global clientele


Wireless gas turbine sensors developed by Sensatek measure temperatures on stationary and rotating blades. The business serves clients around the world in fields including energy, aviation and aeronautics.

“Get advice from everywhere,” Soto advised. “Go and have coffee with everyone you possibly can.” Asked where to begin after an idea is born, Soto suggested the SBDC because they “are going to help you vet out that idea.” The SBDC is equipped to discuss and facilitate prototyping and the development of business models. “You are basing your idea on a lot of assumptions,” Soto said. “What you have to do, very quickly, is turn those assumptions into facts.” It is important to develop technology with the customer in mind. “I can’t really stress that enough,” Soto said. He also emphasized the importance of connecting with the right people by focusing tightly on finding investors and customers.

Tallahassee is a fertile center of intellectual confluence, and said Soto, “intellectual capital is its most precious resource.” Sensatek is operating from Daytona Beach, Soto said, “We haven’t retreated from Tallahassee, we’ve just changed positions on the battlefield, momentarily.” Sensatek required lab space and facilities for prototype development and product testing that were not available to him in Tallahassee. Though Tallahassee is becoming increasingly startup-friendly, the city lacks some scientific resources and esoteric facilities found elsewhere. Via innovation hubs, Soto pitched his product from Los Angeles to Hong Kong, but Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach committed first, providing Soto with $250,000 and

lab space to explore his technology. But the Embry Riddle connection would not have happened without the solid business model that Soto developed with the aid of experienced innovators he met in Tallahassee. Soto plans to return to Tallahassee when facilities catch up with technology over the next couple of years. Even now, with all his success, he continues to get advice from his mentors in Tallahassee. “The umbilical cord is still attached,” Soto said. Even through the pandemic, Sensatek has continued to thrive and look to the future. Although working from home and testing products in his garage, Soto has grown his business, which has added employees since COVID-19’s arrival. At this writing, Sensatek is in contract negotiations with the United States Navy. ● 2021 Tallahassee Innovation & Technology

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Opening Gates to Opportunity Ghosts Controls addresses wants and needs BY STEVE BORNHOFT

Those are lessons that Joe Kelley has learned during his decades in business, the last few years as the president and CEO at Ghost Controls, LLC, a manufacturer of gate-opening systems. “But if there is an opportunity to leverage what you are doing with your business and move into other areas, do the research, give it a shot and see what happens,” Kelley advises. For Kelley, the increasingly popular chicken husbandry hobby presented such an opportunity. “I was amazed at how substantial the market is,” Kelley said of a phenomenon that has been fueled by a desire among people to avoid cage-raised poultry pumped full of growth hormones — and

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boosted, too, by a pandemic-induced quest for new at-home activities. Ghost Controls developed a new line of Coop Controls that react to light levels, opening coop doors as days begin to brighten and closing them after chickens go to roost. “We have done incredibly well with that product,” Kelly said. Research prior to product launch included use of a raccoon cam trained on a chicken coop behind the former Ghost Controls office on Capital Circle Northwest. Live streaming video enabled Kelley et al to gain valuable insights into the operating hours of predators. Kelley, an FSU grad with a business degree, helped found the region’s Economic Development Alliance and served as president of the Greater Tallahassee Area Chamber of Commerce. He first worked with gate openers more than 20 years ago when he went to work as a problem solver for a fledgling LLC, GTO (Gates That Open). GTO toyed around with an idea that Kelley would later seize upon: Produce an affordable gate opener that a homeowner could install without calling upon the services of a professional. GTO’s efforts to do so were fraught with a high defective ratio and were placed on a

back burner by the new owner when the company was sold. Some five years ago, Kelley assembled a five-person team that picked the DIY gate opener concept back up. “I knew three things about consumers in North America and beyond,” Kelley said. “They wanted openers that were faster, quieter and more reliable.” The team set about revolutionizing gate openers in much the way that Dyson disrupted the world of vacuum cleaners. “What Dyson did was to take a consumer product that had not changed much in 100 years, arrive at better motor technology through engineering and produce motors that would last forever,” Kelley said. “It was our goal to do that on the gate automation side.” Kelley wrote a strategic plan that afforded his team 18 months in which to design, prototype and test a product.

PHOTOS COURTESY OF GHOST CONTROLS, LLC

Never forget what got you to the dance. Never lose focus on your core product and the need to continuously innovate to make it better.


Ghost Controls, a Tallahassee company, specializes in gate — and chicken coop door — openers that the do-it-yourselfer can install without having to call upon the services of an electrician.

Develop your own group of advisors who are very good at what they do. Choose people who are successful because they have been innovative, who know how to create a winning culture and create a great strategy. Find someone who knows how to see to the professional growth of people. If you are not growing people, you’ll have to let them go in five years when you’ll need another level of talent.” — Joe Kelley, president and CEO at Ghost Controls, LLC

“We did that, we got patents on designs and features and prepared to go to market,” Kelley said. “I was blessed to have a lot of friends who were leaders in the business community, and I shared with them my offering memo and my prospectus. Within about 45 days, I completely capitalized the company.” Kelley started Ghost Controls in a small office located behind a gas station near his house and used his garage as a machine shop. The business started selling product in 2017. It now occupies nearly 50,000 square feet at Commonwealth Center across the street from Kelley’s workplace during his GTO days. Ghost Controls is well on its way to becoming a $50 million company with fewer than 50 employees. Online reviewers consistently give its products high marks. “People complained about openers that they had to be right on them before they would connect with the radio frequency signal,” Kelley said. “They said they had to wait forever for a gate to open, and ‘waiting forever’ for a consumer is about 11 seconds.”

Ghost Controls addressed those issues and more. They added “partymode,” an option that can be activated so that a gate stays open when a lead vehicle and several following vehicles arrive at a gate at the same time. SafeForce technology enables the gate system to distinguish between wind resistance and a hard obstruction. Ghost Controls offers lifetime warranties on its motors. “Innovation, research and development and bringing new products to market will always be part of our model and our success,” Kelley said. “Because as soon as you stop doing that, you end up not being able to answer quickly someone who comes out with something more innovative. “A great question to ask in business is what are consumers paying for today and what will they be willing to pay someone for in the future. You want to be that someone.” Kelley encourages anyone working to launch a business to find the time to surround himself with good people. “Develop your own group of advisors who are very good at what they do,” he advises. “Choose people who are successful because they have been innovative, who know how to create a winning culture and create a great strategy. Find someone who knows how to see to the professional growth of people. If you are not growing people, you’ll have to let them go in five years when you’ll need another level of talent.” Kelley has found that successful people want to help others achieve success. “They love to see people who want to do it the right way by working hard, sacrificing and making tough decisions,” he said. In the company’s formative months, the Ghost Controls quintet generated a list of seven boxes representing features that it intended its technology to offer. “If we couldn’t check all of them, we weren’t going to proceed,” Kelley said. Team Ghost Controls checked all seven, and the business has grown by an average of 109 percent per year since 2017. That ain’t chicken feed. ● 2021 Tallahassee Innovation & Technology

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A Catalytic Moment

With startups blossoming, investment capital has catching up to do BY T.S. STRICKLAND

There has been a lot of focus in recent years on growing Tallahassee’s startup ecosystem. Accelerators, incubators and pitch competitions have proliferated. Now, as the country lurches out of a suffocating pandemic, the city may be approaching a turning point where years of patient effort will produce a gush of innovation and growth. However, even as resources expand and the pandemic subsides, experts say one crucial ingredient — money — remains scarce. Rick Kearney puts it succinctly: “Tallahassee is an investment desert,” he said. Probably few folks understand the plight of local entrepreneurs as well as Kearney. Mainline Information Systems, the company he founded in 1989, became one of the top IT firms in the state and remains one of the capital region’s brightest success stories. He has been showered with awards recognizing his philanthropy and business acumen and once made the cover of Inc. magazine. Through all these successes, he’s remained loyal to his hometown, and he believes it has the potential to spawn many more success stories. Before that can happen, though, something must be done to bridge the capital divide.

Quiet, patient money

Investors do exist in North Florida, but they are few; deal sizes tend to be small; and the nature of the opportunities they seek doesn’t always conform to the typical tech startup. Robert Blacklidge knows this firsthand. The self-described “serial entrepreneur” recently became the director of entrepreneurship at Domi Station, an organization that provides education and mentorship to local startups. Before coming to Tallahassee, Blacklidge 48

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Because much of the wealth in Florida is tied to real estate, communities, including Tallahassee, need to educate themselves about investing in technology, according to Robert Blacklidge, the executive director at Domi Station.


PHOTOS BY LINDSEY MASTERSON AND COURTESY OF PRESCIENT CAPITAL VENTURES (THOMAS)

they are and where they are. It’s very quiet, worked in Tampa and Lakeland, where he patient money.” helped to grow the startup ecosystem as a community organizer. Before the pandemic, Blacklidge Investment limited was raising money for his own startup, One of these groups, Prescient Capital CourseAlign, which was focused on Ventures, has been quietly investing in educational software. That experience startups since 2009. Prescient is headed taught him that the technology sector by Thom Park, an investment advisor in Florida had a lot to learn from other who once coached college football at The markets — and inspired much of his Citadel, and Bruce Thomas, a successful community organizing. car dealer and real estate entrepreneur. “It’s two sides of the same coin,” Park and Thomas have built a network Blacklidge said. “You have to have compaof 120 to 130 investors over the last decade. nies that are investable, but you also have to About half reside in North Florida. have investors who are educated about how “Many people are interested in investing to bet intelligently on tech startups.” in early stage companies,” Thomas said, Neither of these prerequisites are a given “but they don’t know where to find them. — particularly in smaller markets like You can’t just find an ad in a newspaper or Tallahassee. This is due, at least in part, to on television.” the nature of the wealth that exists there. Thomas said the group probably meets “A lot of the wealth in Florida is real with about 30 companies each year. Of estate based,” Blacklidge said. “Tech and these, they invest in maybe one, with deal real estate are completely different animals. sizes ranging from a few hundred thousand Tech startups are a high-risk gamble. You’re to a few million dollars. Thomas said they’d going to lose nine out of 10 times.” only invested in two local companies during That’s why investors in larger markets Prescient’s 12-year history. This is due, tend to specialize and hedge their bets by at least in part, to the quality of startups investing in numerous companies in the they’ve seen. same niche. “Being in a university town, we have a lot “That gives you a unique capability of professors and students who have ideas at scale,” Blacklidge said. “As some of and want to monetize them,” Thomas said. those companies die off, you can roll that “A lot of them think that, if they bring in a talent and technology into the surviving million-dollar investment, their idea will companies. In Florida, that’s not always the just work. We bring them down to earth, case. You’ll see groups invest in 10 different but we try to do so gently.” companies in 10 different industries.” Thomas said Prescient did not have a This is starting to particular industry focus. change, Blacklidge said. “The business just has As the startup ecosystem to make sense to us,” he matures, more and more said. He added that a investors are banding tofounder with skin in the gether to form syndicates game was a prerequisite. or co-ops of high-net“We look at the leadworth individuals who ership of the company invest their resources toand what they’ve done,” gether and share the cost Thomas said. “In most We look at the of due diligence and portcases, the founder has inleadership of the folio management. vested some of their own company and what they’ve done. In “There are family invesmoney or devoted a lot of most cases, the founder tors and smaller groups time. That’s inspiring. We has invested some of here,” Kearney said. “You pay attention to that.” their own money or devoted a lot of time. can go visit them in the While groups like That’s inspiring. We pine trees and do a deal, Prescient provide some pay attention to that.” but you have to know who runway for a select group — Bruce Thomas 2021 Tallahassee Innovation & Technology

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of startups, Kearney said there remained a big disconnect between the kind of early stage, small-scale investments these groups make and the large-scale capital needed to bring those ideas to market.

A role for the university

Growing the ecosystem

Domi’s Blacklidge, though, remains optimistic. Having worked closely with startups in other parts of the state, he said Tallahassee was ahead of the curve in many ways. “We have an organized effort through several different partners to prepare entrepreneurs and connect them to mentorship,” he said. He added that the pandemic, for all the chaos and tragedy it has produced, had also helped to dissolve some of the barriers to fundraising that had long hobbled startups in smaller markets. 50

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MAKING THEIR PITCHES Participants in a Junior Achievement Shark Bowl competition gain valuable experience by preparing presentations and making pitches to judges. For future entrepreneurs and capital investors, Junior Achievement can be a formative influence as it was for Ron Miller, the executive director at Tallahassee’s Innovation Park.

As investors are forced to digitize their processes, they are also democratizing them. Hopping on a Zoom call is a lot more accessible than hopping a plane, and Blacklidge said he hoped the shifting landscape would favor good ideas, no matter where they originated. “With the pandemic, the geographic barriers to raising money that existed before have dissolved,” he said. Likewise, Blacklidge said the last year had brought an explosion of innovation. “We went from seven or eight participants in our program to 44 in the last six months,” he said. Some of these founders turned to entrepreneurship after losing their day jobs. For others, a year of instability and change had simply rendered the risks of entrepreneurship less imposing. Regardless, Blacklidge said he was optimistic about the future of Tallahassee’s startup community. “I think we are at a catalytic moment,” he said. ●

If you were just to look at people who went to school here or had careers here, the wealth exists. The problem is that the people who are in the investment industry don’t reside here. They are the missing connectors. Universities could help plug this gap, because they have the credibility, but there has to be a greater commitment.” — Rick Kearney

PHOTOS COURTESY OF JUNIOR LEAGUE BIG BEND (JA SHARKBOWL 2019) AND RICK KEARNEY

Kearney believes the state university system could be the region’s greatest asset in scaling the innovation economy — both by bringing academic research into the private sector and by helping entrepreneurs access the capital needed to bring those technologies to market. “With the College of Medicine at Florida State University, as well as their chemistry department, we have a very high potential in pharma, chemicals and drugs,” Kearney said. “A lot could also be done in the energy, aerospace and transportation sectors in conjunction with FSU’s MagLab.” Kearney said local universities — in addition to producing innovations and transferring them to the private sector — could prove crucial in soliciting the capital needed to take them to market. “I think improving the capital landscape is a huge area of opportunity,” he said. “The universities really could become marketplaces for innovation.” In other parts of the country, alumni networks act as a kind of connective tissue that brings together academia, venture capital and private equity. “If you were just to look at people who went to school here or had careers here, the wealth exists,” Kearney said. “The problem is that the people who are in the investment industry don’t reside here. They are the missing connectors. Universities could help plug this gap, because they have the credibility, but there has to be a greater commitment.”


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