Innovative area companies snap up grads

By Anthony Clark | The Gainesville Sun

Mayra Mari graduated on Saturday from the University of Florida Master of Business Administration program. On Monday, she starts a job managing client website development projects for 352 Media Group.

“I was very happy to find a job here in Gainesville,” said Mari, 24, who is from Miami.

Gainesville is happy to have her.

In the past couple of years, the city’s business, academic and political leadership have organized around efforts to grow an innovation economy by trying to keep the university’s brain power from leaving.

Innovation Gainesville, the economic development plan led by the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce, is focused on helping to start, grow and recruit innovative companies that provide graduates like Mari a place to work. The mission is also to encourage entrepreneurs to create their own jobs and jobs for others.

The idea is that as the number of professional jobs grows, that in turn creates the need for jobs in service industries, improving opportunities for people at all education levels.

For years, UF has provided a pipeline of employees for local business and government, particularly in fields such as education, medicine, civil and environmental engineering, biotechnology, accounting and law.

Recent years have seen a boom in information technology jobs, both from software companies moving here to take advantage of the talent supply and from students and graduates starting their own companies.

352 Media Group presaged the IT student startup boom by a decade. Geoff Wilson and Peter VanRysdam were in the journalism program at UF studying to be TV journalists while building websites for extra money on the side. After graduating in 2000, they decided to turn their side gig into a career.

Mari is one of two UF MBA graduates starting at the company Monday, bringing the full-time staff to 67, said Wilson, the company’s president and CEO. Wilson figures that at least 75 percent of the company’s employees come from UF or Santa Fe College, having studied graphic design, advertising, marketing, digital media production, computer science or business.

“We have discovered over the years that our biggest competitive advantage to being headquartered in Gainesville is the access to top talent from the University of Florida and from Santa Fe College,” Wilson said.

Having access and proximity to computer science talent helped to lure software development company MindTree Limited to Gainesville with plans to create at least 400 jobs locally.

SumTotal Systems, which develops human resources software, helped with the pitch to MindTree on behalf of the Chamber.

SumTotal’s entry into Gainesville came with the acquisition of the similarly named MindSolve Technologies, which was founded by UF graduates. SumTotal moved its headquarters to Gainesville in 2010 largely because of the talent pool.

An international company, SumTotal has 175 employees in Gainesville, with more than 100 being local graduates, and plans for rapid growth, spokesman Christopher Faust said.

Most of the jobs are for computer engineers, but the headquarters also hires people in finance, sales and marketing, and customer service, which requires communication skills, he said. “We’re hiring the smartest and brightest people,” Faust said.

Reserveage Organics, a natural supplement company, has almost 100 employees, 85 percent of whom graduated from UF in such fields as communications, advertising, systems analysis and engineering, accounting and legal.

The company also plans to recruit from the nutrition department, CEO Naomi Whittel said.

She said they have had to go outside the area to find experienced management.

More and more students are starting their own companies.

Many are creating online and mobile applications “because it’s inexpensive and the potential is great,” said Ted Astleford, director of experiential learning at the UF Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.

“It is a growing trend. Over the last three or four years, you’ve really seen this culture of entrepreneurship here has exploded,” he said.

Astleford said at least a dozen student startups are in downtown Gainesville, while a few are in the UF Innovation Hub and probably a couple dozen more work out of home offices. Some use interns from UF.

The big ones are Grooveshark, the online music streaming service founded by two UF students while they were still undergrads, and Trendy Entertainment, the video game maker founded by two UF graduates. Both have hired UF graduates from fields such as computer engineering and marketing.

Most student startups include only the founder or two or three students with complementary skills who partnered to start a business. A few will be successful, possibly creating more jobs, and the rest will go away, Astleford said.

UF’s Office of Technology Licensing has helped start more than 100 companies over the past 10 years by matching entrepreneurs with university research inventions. Some of the companies relocate to the CEO’s home base.

Jane Muir, director of the UF Innovation Hub, said that of the surviving companies, about three-fourths of those that started in a local business incubator have stayed in the community. Those in the biomedical fields tend to hire post-doctoral or graduate students, while the IT companies hire undergrads, she said.

At the spring Career Showcase at UF, local companies were recruiting in the fields of transportation, publishing, engineering, information technology, energy and accounting. Gainesville currently has a lot of jobs open for software developers and programmers, said Kim Tesch-Vaught, vice president of workforce for the Chamber and FloridaWorks. She said there also has been an increase in marketing and communications jobs, particularly for people who can write and do Web design.

Gov. Rick Scott has emphasized the need for more graduates from the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and math.

Tesch-Vaught said local tech companies are looking for people who have other skills to complement STEM skills.

“They might come from communications. They might come from the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, but they have to have an aptitude for technology,” she said. “It might be a minor. It might be something they did extracurricular.”

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Virginia MacKoul

Virginia is a graduate from the University of Florida's College of Design Construction and Planning with a degree in Sustainability and the Built Environment, and a minor in Urban Regional Planning. Virginia joined the Front Street team in 2011, as an intern. Upon graduation, Virginia joined the Front Street team full-time as the Director of Client Services. Ms. MacKoul’s addition furthers Front Street’s continued growth and expansion within Gainesville and other North Central Florida markets. She was promoted to Director of Marketing in 2014 and now manages the firm’s team of interns and oversees all marketing and branding activity. Virginia was born in Boston and moved to Lee County, Florida in 1997. Virginia graduated her high school's International Baccalaureate program and started at the University of Florida with a focus on Architecture. Virginia shares Front Street's passion of giving back to the community and those in need. Virginia's hobbies include photography, cooking, football, movies, music, and spending time with her dog, Brinkley.

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