Faces of Tech
Orlando’s tech startup community is a digital melting pot of app developers, software designers and hardware makers. Their stories are as diverse as their creative endeavors.
Read more about the faces behind Orlando's tech scene.
Echo Interaction Group
Trobo the Storytelling Robot
When he was in sixth grade, Mark Salpeter took a class in QBasic, a beginner computer program, and was instantly hooked.
It was the early 2000s, and he was surfing America Online, studying the code used to build Internet web pages. That led to him create his own pages, take more computer classes and eventually obtain a digital media degree from the University of Central Florida in 2012. After working for two failed tech startups, Salpeter ventured out on his own. Today, he is hard at work on Dealyze, a bar code-business card swipe system designed to track and reward restaurant customers. He’s eager to draw investors but not interested in selling his business. He’s having too much fun building it.
“It’s tough; it’s a lot of hard work,” says Salpeter, 25. “But you enjoy every minute. I’m around kids my age, and we’re all dreamers.’’
They are a legion of dreamers—creative, fearless, mostly twenty and thirtysomething computer wizards and entrepreneurs, often armed with nothing more than a laptop, an Internet connection and an idea. Many work out of coffee shops or shared spaces—independent creators, yet working in a spirit of collaboration. They are intent on fashioning a multitude of apps and other products, both software and hardware, that are relevant to living and connecting in the Digital Age.
And they are doing it here, in Orlando, where they say they feel momentum and a great “vibe” in the area’s startup technology and business community.
“We feel the next 50 years of Orlando is being decided today,” says Kunal Patel, 31, the son of Indian immigrants and the owner of downtown technology company Phykentech Inc., and a video gaming firm, Phyken Media Inc. “We’re not going to wait for anyone to help us.”
Yet they are getting help, and it comes from within the community, including the new downtown Canvs shared workspace, designed to attract and nurture early startups like Salpeter’s. With the planned Creative Village project and a larger UCF satellite campus on the drawing board, government, educational institutions and leading businesses are taking a supporting role, with the stated goal of turning Orlando into one of the Southeast’s premier startup hubs.
That suits Mark Salpeter just fine.
“I really like Orlando,’’ he says. “I feel (the tech community) is growing a lot and there’s room to grow. We just need to have a few success stories.”
The concept of a tech startup is basically this: An entrepreneur sees the need or receives a request for a product or service. He or she researches it, designs it and sells it. The product can range from a fingerprint-coded lock for handguns to a cellphone application that keeps track of commuter train schedules to a talking robot doll that teaches kids how to solve problems.
The local startup community is a digital melting pot. They are black, white, Hispanic, Asian, Indian. They are immigrants and homegrown, straight and gay. Some go to work on bikes, skateboards, or the SunRail train. The most commonly worn business attire is blue jeans and casual shirts. Most are men, but women hold key positions in their ranks. Many are socially conscious and want to build a successful tech community here instead of fleeing to California’s crowded and expensive Silicon Valley, Seattle or Austin like friends did just a few years ago.
They are mostly Millennials, the first generation exposed to the Internet in their formative years. They experienced the harsh reality of unemployment during the recession from 2007 to 2009. Perhaps that’s why many have shunned working for corporate America or government, preferring to take risks and chart their own course. And if a project fails, they see it as a learning process and move on to another.
Their choice to try to make it in Orlando could generate a push toward economic diversification for the region, which has been dominated by Disney and tourism for 40 years. That’s why Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs have embraced the tech startup industry. The city has given $50,000 to the Orlando Tech Association—a nonprofit that helps connect the technology community—and promised a $100,000 match if an Orlando seed fund, Starter Corps, receives federal money this year.
“The problem is a lot is happening in Orlando, but the city is not doing a good enough job selling itself,” Valentine told a crowd at the first ever Digital Orlando Summit in December. That challenge has led local economic development officials to come up with a new marketing campaign that includes tech opportunities titled, “Orlando. You don’t know the half of it.”Chris Valentine, an Austin, Texas, tech event and business incubator organizer who works with various cities, says Orlando has done a great job promoting itself as the nation’s top tourist destination. But it is competing with Omaha, Pittsburgh, Houston and Los Angeles—and needs to make more Top 10 livability and business lists nationwide to garner attention in the tech world.
The U.S. Census Bureau ranks the Orlando area among the lowest in per capita income—about $26,000—for the top 50 most populated metropolitan areas in 2012, so more high-tech jobs would be a boost to the economy. Tech salaries can range from $35,000 to $150,000.
“We’ve talked for a decade about diversifying our economy,” Dyer says. Although Orlando won’t become another Silicon Valley, he says it can carve out a niche in the Southeast to complement technology used in the region’s simulation and training industry, theme park rides and biotech companies at Medical City.
“We can be Orlando. We’re not trying to create a Silicon Valley or Austin,” Dyer says. “And Canvs is helping us as a bridge to the Creative Village. Our goal is to have our smart young people have a career here in Orlando.”
Talk to Phil Holt, a co-founder of Canvs, about the local tech startup scene and he will tell you about what it could be. Or should be. He’s all about analytics and comparisons to other cities around the country and the world.
Canvs guru Phil Holt at his desk.
He questions why Boulder, Colorado, has science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) startup jobs six times that of Orlando and the national average. And while other cities in the world are exploding with tech growth and jobs such as Shanghai, China; Mumbai, India; Jakarta, Indonesia; and Sao Paulo, Brazil; the U.S. has enjoyed little or no new recent tech growth, Holt says.
The Orlando area, where he moved nine years ago, has all the ingredients to change that. He says it just needs the right seeds planted.
In 2013, Dyer tapped Holt as a vice chair of Project DTO, a task force to study and transform livability in Orlando. The group analyzed Orlando and other worldwide cities and made numerous recommendations for parks, transportation, business and culture.
One key tool Holt cites for tech startups is UCF. The UCF Business Incubation Program has helped develop hundreds of companies since 1999. The school also has a renowned computer science program, and its student enrollment of nearly 61,000 ranks second in the nation. With its skilled grads—part of the 870,000 people aged 18 to 44 in the Orlando region—the university provides plenty of skilled workers for tech-hungry employers.
Holt says success needs to be driven by entrepreneurs in a multi-decade commitment with an environment where everyone is welcome. Wide-ranging activities such as “startup weekends” and creative competitions are needed to inspire and
Holt, 44, of Winter Park, worked as a vice president and studio manager for video gaming giant EA Tiburon in Maitland, maker of the popular Madden NFL and Tiger Woods PGA Tour. He left that job in 2011 to pursue his own startup, Splyt, an analytics software firm. In the global workplace of today, his company’s first customers were from China and New Zealand.
These days, he is the professorial point man at Canvs, the nonprofit shared workspace of 57 companies that runs out of Church Street Exchange—where nothing else before has succeeded for long. Canvs’ mission is to make it easier for anyone to pursue a startup; provide support and mentoring; and inspire others to pursue that dream. It is a modern, open space where rows of desks are old doors salvaged from the remodeled building last year. Bicycles and skateboards are parked inside. Canvs rents space on a sliding scale from $100 to $1,000 monthly, depending on the services, space needed and types of offices. Echo Interaction Group, an apps developer, is among the prominent tenants. Next up: Florida Institute of Technology, which is opening a Women’s Business Center in the space this year to assist entrepreneurs. (It received a $750,000 U.S. Small Business Administration grant in October.)
Sometimes Canvs is as quiet as a library, with individuals busy writing code or working on design. At other times, the space is buzzing with phone calls and people gathering around desks to chat. A favorite meeting spot is the kitchen, where members stand at a high-top table, their laptops open, while talking with Holt over soda, peanuts or beer.
Colin Forward, business development director at Allogy Interactive, says working out of Canvs is inspiring. “There are a lot of ambitious people there with their companies,” he says. “In a lot of ways, it’s like walking into a big technology company with a bunch of CEOs around.”
Canvs tenants can tap into the diverse skill sets of their neighbors, ranging from understanding political connections, to information technology, to marketing expertise. For Forward, a 26-year-old UCF grad and his 12-person healthcare cloud software firm with $1 million in revenue, that is invaluable. “You’ll never feel like you’re missing out hearing stuff you hear at Canvs. It’s definitely the heart of the Orlando tech community.”
The potential to succeed seems unlimited. But, Holt says, “Some of these companies will fail. That’s an inherent part of this process. And if they fail, they move to another group.”
However, there are numerous local startup success stories that have inspired fledgling tech inventors to keep pursuing their dreams. Among them:
Channel Intelligence, a Celebration-based e-commerce company, was bought by Google for $125 million in 2013. The company’s software helped compare products and prices sold by different retailers online.
Accesso, an online theme park ticket software firm based in Lake Mary, was bought by a British firm for $22 million in December 2012.
Winter Park-based Unikey Technologies Inc. and its wireless, smartphone-activated door lock was a hit on the TV show Shark Tank in 2012, receiving investment offers from two billionaire hosts. Last year, Unikey announced a partnership with a major door lock maker, Kwikset.
Holt says the Central Florida region needs more early- and later-stage funding ranging up to $2 million and $8 million, respectively, for viable ventures to grow. He agrees with Mayor Dyer that Central Florida’s economy needs to become more diversified and less dependent on tourism over the next 50 years.
“If not, we’ve utterly failed as a community,” Holt says. “Our future needs to be designed by a company that does not yet exist.”
UCF economist Sean Snaith says the chance of startup tech firms rivaling the still-growing tourism industry is a long shot. The creation of the Silicon Valley and North Carolina’s Research Triangle took decades of persistent work and plentiful investment.
But he believes the high-tech push is worth the effort. Fifty years ago, thinking about having three major theme parks all thriving in metro Orlando simultaneously “was probably pie-in-the-sky too,” Snaith says.
Meanwhile, the tech community keeps connecting. The Orlando Tech Association lists about 80 events a month, including informal meetups, seminars and other events. Gatherings such as BarCamp 2014 attracted 500 computer entrepreneurs and the curious in September for dozens of free tech and business seminars. Indienomicon Expo 2014, a gaming showcase held in December, attracted more than 300 program developers and enthusiasts at the downtown Orlando library’s high-tech Melrose Center. And gaming is no joke—it’s a $100 billion annual industry worldwide.
Orrett Davis, the Orlando Tech Association’s executive director show students the intricacies of computer coding during an outreach event at Memorial Middle School.
Orrett Davis, the tech association’s executive director, and other local computer talents and volunteers also conduct free community outreach events such as an Hour of Code, an after-school program in December that introduced 200 Orlando middle school students to computer coding basics. At Rollins College, potential investors and entrepreneurs meet to hear and critique startup pitches at low-key weekly meetings over coffee as part of 1 Million Cups, a nationwide project with a local chapter.
And Salpeter keeps fine-tuning his Dealyze customer tracking project at Canvs. For months, he and business partner Bill Baron had endless meetings in coffee shops, brainstorming, designing, planning and writing code. They eventually came up with a thin, plastic business card with a QR (Quick Response) two-dimensional bar code on the back to be swiped over an Android-based terminal, wirelessly connected to a business’ computer system. After a customer enters his or her name,
e-mail address or cell phone number during the first sale, it tracks their activity and offers rewards.
Dealyze has its terminals in 16 locations and expects to be in 40 stores soon. They include coffee shops, restaurants and ice cream stores in the UCF area, Daytona Beach and Puerto Rico. Salpeter and Baron are talking to larger franchises with up to 50 stores and are applying to business incubators for more development training. They also are modifying sales and investment pitches and working on additional product features.
When asked if he wants to be like a certain Harvard student who helped found Facebook—and is now worth $33 billion—Salpeter has a straightforward response:
“I don’t want to be the next Mark Zuckerberg,” he says. “I want to be the first Mark Salpeter.”