By Doug Poretz
Panelists at the Friday, Feb.1, closing lunch session of the annual Florida Venture Forum Capital Conference agreed on one basic premise: Florida should forget about emulating the growth model of Silicon Valley, Boston, or any other of the well-known centers of technology. I think that was a significant acknowledgement, and an encouraging sign because you can’t fix something unless you understand it realistically to begin with. The panelists basically all said that it’s too late to succeed using that model, and that Florida isn’t positioned to compete well using that model in any case. Their conclusion: Florida needs to explore and create its own model of how to become a tech center, leveraging its own unique assets.
The panel, which was sponsored by Enterprise Florida, was primarily focused on the Life and BioScience industries in the statebut the comments apply equally to the Information Technology sector, as well. Panelists were: Bard Geesaman, Managing Director, MPM Capital; Bernadette Cusack, Office of Intellectual Property Mayo Clinic – Florida; Les McPhearson, Senior Director- Business innovation, Florida Blue; John Tullis, Managing Director, Tullis Health Investors; and Dr. Daniel Wilson, Dean, UF/Shands College of Medicine.
Despite agreement on the need for Florida to create its own model for how to become a tech center, there was no real agreement on how to do thator what that model would look like. I have been involved in similar efforts during my career, so here are some ideas I think could jump-start the creation of a “Florida model”:
Coalesce the players. There was a lot of talk about the need to collaborate. But you can’t collaborate without collaborators – the more the better. If Florida is really going to create its own model, this is an a priori truth: community comes first, and collaboration follows. The people and organizations that are going to be instrumental in building Florida into a global tech center need to meet each other, build relationships, do business with each other and refer business to each other. Build the community and collaboration will come naturally. Without the community, collaboration is a nice dream. Once the community comes together, the spirit of collaboration should distinguish the Florida community.
Actually do something about the geographical reality. More than one speaker noted that Florida lacks the “density” of Silicon Valley, Boston and the other tech centers whererelationships are built when people see each other often. Can that be overcome? There have been some very big, powerful and coalesced communities created on the web. What about conducting a competition to solicit proposals on how the web can be used to at least partially offset the geographical situation and build the tech community? Make the competition highly visibleand offer a decent prize, and great solutions will be submitted. If one or more is successfully implemented, Florida will not only overcome its geographical dilemma, it will also tie innovative thinking and online solutions with Florida’s tech community, especially IT. It could also set a precedent for turning to public competitions more than just once to help build the tech community – sort of like an American Idol for innovators.
Accept that Florida is one state. There are distinct segments within the stateand segments within the segments. That’s reality and it’s not going away. But the fact that Florida is one state is also reality. Parochialismcan sometimes be an asset, but it’s a distinct liability right now for Florida because it hampers the formation of the broad-based community that is needed to build a tech industry for the state. While there is sensitivity from region to region not to compete, there is no real movement to see just how powerful collaboration can be. That should change.
Change how success is measured. Governor Scott has set 700,000 new jobs as the goal of economic development efforts. That’s an admirable goal: good for the state, for the people who get the new jobs, and for political goals. But it is inadequate if Florida is going to be serious about building a tech industry. New jobs will be an outcome for sure, but other goals need to be achievedto grow less-cyclical, high paying, wealth-creating jobs over a long period of time. Basically, this will be an effort to transition Florida from an agriculture, real estate and hospitality economy to a knowledge economy. That requires a shift in culture in order to make the state attractive to young tech workers, support basic research, understand the need to keep improving infrastructure, encourage entrepreneurialism, establish a local investment community, and more. Because that is going to take years to build, focusing on job creation alone will mask the importance of achieving these long-term cultural shifts. A new index is needed that measures multiplecritical trends in order to see the pace and breadth of progress to a new future.
Position Miami as theemerging most important international city of the Western Hemisphere. Miami is generally acknowledged to be “the capital of Latin America.” That description should encompass a status as the hemisphere’s center of gravity for the technology industry. The primary Internet hub for all Latin America is located in Miami, and the May 2014 Tech Conference of the Americas, being initiated by Manny Medina, will be another major event in establishing Miami’s prominence in IT. And in biomedicine and biotech, Latin American venues are increasingly being used for clinical trials for Florida-based companies. But Miami has also become a magnet for Europeans, Russians and Asians – just ask the people selling high-end real estate in Miami. With its diverse population, the premier status of its ports, the obvious attraction of its climate and environment, and favorable tax policy, Miami can become increasingly important as a true international city in today’s “flat” world. Imagine Miami positioned as the Dubai of the Western Hemisphere, with the added benefit of the political stability of the US. That would bring investment capital, global commerce, a more vibrant culture, and an environment where global tech companies from startups to multinationals can prosper.It’s an issue of branding, and it will require the support of the coalesced business community to make that happen.
Craft a uniquely Florida vision of the future. People pursue visionsand understand progress within the context of that vision. An image of what Florida would look like with a vibrant tech community needs to be crafted, promoted, and shared. This goes beyond “the right climate for business” campaign being launched by the state (which I personally think is a memorable ad line for a much-needed campaign). The vision that is needed is aspirational and bold: what the future could look like for Florida with a vigorous tech community. Such a widely accepted and shared image of the future is a vital component in creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.
These sixsteps hardly comprise the totality of what it will take for Florida to create its own role model. But, in the spirit of the challenge defined by the panelists at the Florida Venture Forum, they are uniquely “Florida.” Most importantly, they are doable first steps in the pursuit of an effort widely agreed to be needed. We need to get going.
Doug Poretz of Palm Beach Gardens, principal and co-founder of Next Horizon Communications, LLC, has been a communications advisor to senior executives for more than four decades. He has extensive experience in community-building and played a leading role in making Northern Virginia a center of excellence for the global IT industry. He can be reached at dporetz@NextHorizonCommunications.com