ORLANDO — Yes, the City the Mouse Built is quietly gathering a critical mass as Florida's startup hub for digital technology.
While we still identify Orlando as a place overgrown with theme parks, the city's startup renaissance was recently captured in a 45-minute documentary called Orlando Rising. The film is clearly promotional. But its can-do theme resonates, suggesting the entrepreneurial stars are aligning in this metro area, especially in its downtown.
I viewed Orlando Rising recently and toured some of the city's vibrant startup community with the film's executive producer, David Glass. A founder of the Florida Technology Journal, Glass is a re-energized entrepreneur who relocated to Orlando after an underwhelming stint in Tampa.
The film features fast-paced, upbeat interviews with a broad array of Orlando politicians, business leaders, academics and entrepreneurs. "I just want people to know what we really are," Teresa Jacobs, mayor of Orange County, Orlando's home, says in the film. "Once they know, I think we'll be the magnet for the world."
"This is a get 'er done place," echoes Bob Allen in the film. His media company is a Disney spinoff that relocated downtown from a back lot of Disney's Hollywood Studios.
The film is not yet available online or in theaters, except for a few in Orlando. But the feel-good film already serves as a rallying cry for Orlando entrepreneurs and creatives alike.
Don't let Orlando's size — it's smaller than the Tampa Bay metro market — fool you. The city's run with precision and cooperation by veteran politicians like Jacobs and Mayor Buddy Dyer. Orlando enjoys a deep bench of talented tech engineers. Its University of Central Florida boasts a strong reputation for economic development. All the tax dollars that flow from being the world's biggest tourist destination help, too.
In the downtown core, cheap spaces dedicated to startup businesses and business accelerators are opening in dormant Church Street Station, where tourist restaurants and bars once flourished. UCF will soon open a digital-media incubator downtown for startups developing video games, animated film and Web products.
A free bus system called Lymmo circulates downtown, making it easy to get around, and cheap for young entrepreneurs who can leave their cars at home and skip pricey parking garage fees. Nearby, a major proposed project known as Creative Village will feature clusters of urban housing, working space and support services dedicated to high-tech innovation.
Contrast this glimpse of a highly focused and even cocky Orlando to Tampa Bay's more fragmented approach to supporting startups. Many projects operate as separate silos in Tampa or St. Petersburg or Largo or Clearwater or Oldsmar or Wesley Chapel. And talk of better coordinating Tampa Bay's startup culture is modest so far.
"The rise in Orlando's ecosystem is a good thing for Tampa Bay," says Linda Olson, who co-founded the Tampa Bay WaVE business incubator in downtown Tampa. "This is not a zero-sum game. If we work with Orlando to get the word out about Central Florida's strengths for tech talent and tech companies, we will all enjoy a fantastic economic boom for the long term."
At the same time, Olson agrees it is "great" to let our local political and business leaders know how aggressively Orlando is building its ecosystem. "If we don't wake up, they very well could steal a lot of our talent and most promising companies."
Serial entrepreneur Daniel James Scott, who teaches startup skills at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg business school, recently took his own tour of Orlando with Glass. Scott was impressed with the downtown momentum.
"Holy cow," he said in an email. "A dense urban core and city/county alignment really pay off."
Several years ago, Tampa Bay's tech community tried to create its own film like Orlando Rising. But it never quite happened. A brief trailer still haunts the Internet, but it feels canned and lacks a grass roots tone.
That does not mean Tampa Bay's startup scene does not deserve its own documentary.
At Tampa Bay WaVE, Olson says she see plenty of reasons to validate Tampa Bay's efforts. She cites the recent decision by the major health care incubator Healthbox to choose Tampa Bay for its home base in Florida.
"After looking at ecosystems around the state, including Orlando and Miami, they chose Tampa Bay because they liked what they saw here," Olson says. "And I personally know of other national programs who are looking at Tampa Bay, and not Orlando, for some exciting opportunities because we have a lot of what they are looking for."
That's the beauty of the entrepreneur: Hope springs eternal. In Orlando and Tampa Bay.
Robert Trigaux can be reached at [email protected]