Gainesville and UF grow tech industry

From Jacksonville Business Journal, By Carole Hawkins

Master plans to redevelop urban cores and fill them with high-growth companies are great.

Results are better.

Two years ago the University of Florida and Gainesville business leaders envisioned a master-planned urban tech district where research and innovation would flourish. Today that idea is taking off.

Over the past 18 months, four tech companies, including software developers Mindtree of Bangalore, India, and Mobiquity, based in Boston, have moved into Innovation Square with more than 100 jobs, and promises of hundreds more as business operations expand. Two additional companies are poised to announce within weeks.

“It’s exciting. It’s happening a lot quicker than I even imagined it would,” said Ed Poppell, a former UF vice president who today oversees the Innovation Square project.

The idea of the 40-acre development, located between UF’s main campus and downtown Gainesville, is to draw top tech companies by combining access to the university’s talent pool with the synergy of a research park and the lifestyle of new urban millennials.

The district’s seed project was The Florida Innovation Hub, a $13.5 million university-owned tech incubator that opened last year and is now occupied by 25 tech startups.

A new 150,000-square-foot technology office center, Infusion, will break ground next quarter, and a live-learn apartment complex for entrepreneurs, Inspiration Hall, will follow.

In October Innovation Square’s first company, Mindtree, moved into the district’s renovated Ayer’s Medical Plaza, which once served as physicians’ offices for a university-affiliated teaching hospital.

Mindtree, which builds custom software for Fortune 2,000 companies, chose Gainesville because it wanted an onshore delivery center for its U.S. customers, said Scott Staples, Americas president for the company. It sought an affordable second-tier city with a top engineering university.

“Innovation Square was a perfect fit,” Staples said. “It’s an up-and-coming area with a good tech vibe and a good entrepreneurial vibe.”

In the new tech age, the No. 1 attraction for companies is to be located as close as possible to a university, Poppell said.

“In today’s competitive environment, whoever gets the best and brightest becomes successful,” he said.

“We believe that in order for universities to be relevant, they have to be economic drivers. Number one, they have to create technology, discoveries and inventions. And number two, we need to produce the knowledge workers that companies need.”

Indeed, Mindtree has recruited its 100 or so employees so far from about a dozen universities. But the vast majority of these have been UF graduates, Staples said.

The relationship with UF goes deeper than recruiting, though. Mindtree sits on the engineering school’s advisory board in order to discuss its curriculum and strategic plan.

That kind of collaboration occurs in other parts of the Innovation Square concept as well.

Innovation Square was designed to have office, residential, recreation and shopping and restaurant components. That’s different from traditional research parks, typically sprawling business complexes at the edges of a city. With Innovation Square, the idea is to have everyone together in a synergistic environment.

“Mindtree and companies like them can offer a comfortable lifestyle for their employees,” said project developer John Fleming of Trimark Properties. “Grad students, for example, like to work irregular hours, so they like to be close to where they work.”

Staples agreed that it was Innovation Square’s ecosystem, not just UF’s graduates, that separated Gainesville from competing cities.

“Because of Innovation Square, Gainesville will be able to attract other tech companies, and tech companies like to coexist,” he said. “As the pie of talent gets bigger, the customers and reputation that attracts get bigger.”

Innovation Square

The companies

  • October 2012: Mindtree, builds custom enterprise software, 400 jobs pledged
  • May 2013: CurtCo Robb Media LLC, a digital publishing company
  • June 2013: Mobiquity, builds mobile apps for business, 260 jobs pledged
  • Summer 2013: Sears Holdings Corp., an integrated retailer, 25 software development interns

The mission

A master-planned high-tech district where companies and entrepreneurs can create, develop and commercialize discoveries

The vision

Collaboration to create economic development and high-wage jobs by growing Gainesville’s tech industry

“In order for universities to be relevant, they have to be economic drivers. They have to create technology, discoveries and inventions, and they need to produce the knowledge workers that companies need.”

— Ed Poppell, UF Development Corp. Director

Nick Banks

Nick created Front Street Commercial Real Estate Group in 2002 and spent the first eight years developing and acquiring office and retail projects in South Florida as well as North Central Florida. In 2010 the focus of the firm was shifted to primarily serve third party clients and perform brokerage, property management and mortgage banking functions. Nick has personally developed and acquired nearly 200,000 square feet of office and retail properties in markets throughout Florida. Prior to founding Front Street, Nick was the Director of Finance and Dispositions for Stiles Corporation in Fort Lauderdale where he financed and sold over $500 million in commercial real estate. Before joining Stiles, Nick was an Associate Director at GE Capital Real Estate where he sourced over $200 million in financing throughout Florida. Nick is a graduate of the University of Florida with a degree in Finance and a concentration in Real Estate. He serves as a board member and current vice-chair for the United Way of North Central Florida where he also chairs the Development Committee. Nick is actively involved with the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce where he serves as a board member and committee member for the Council for Economic Outreach. He is also a recent graduate of Leadership Gainesville which is a year long leadership program hosted by the Chamber. He is a member of Grace United Methodist Church where he has served as finance chair and as a member of the leadership council. Nick serves as an advisory board member of the University of Florida Bergstrom Center for Real Estate Studies. Nick was recently named chair of the Gainesville committee for the North Florida chapter of Urban Land Institute (ULI). He is a licensed real estate broker in the State of Florida and is a long time member of the International Council of Shopping Centers.

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