Could the tourist destination of Central Florida be charming for tech entrepreneurs, too? – Orlando Sentinel

Shannon Landen never doubted her tech savvy.

Before creating Codecraft Works, an education and training technology company headquartered in Brevard County, an entrepreneurial mother volunteered at her children’s schools, helping teach teachers how to overcome computer coding challenges.

But marketing her smart ideas? That was the hardest.

“I can’t say I’m a really smart entrepreneur and that I knew I was going to do this thing and make money,” Landin, 48, said. “No, it was like I thought there was a gap here and I thought I could fill that and maybe someone would pay for it.”

She’s hoping to get support for her company from Cenfluence, a job-raising strategy, funded by Orange County, to raise local tech companies, diversify the region’s economy dependent on tourism, and the heavy financial damage caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Its leaders say the initiative has taken small but important steps in its first year, and portends good things to come.

About 70 tech companies have joined the collaborative mission to make Central Florida as magical for tech entrepreneurs as for tourists, said Paul Suhl, a former US Navy aviator, retired admiral and Cenfluence management team leader.

“We are taking advantage of the magic that is already here,” he said, citing a cadre of local innovators and University of Central Florida research prowess. “There are an astonishing number of resources here – everything from major industries to research universities to economic development institutions – all very focused on doing what’s right for companies to grow.”

Sohl said Cenfluence, which has office space at the National Business Center at the Fashion Square Mall in Orlando, is designed to “enhance the synergy” between all of these assets.

Since its launch in 2021, Cenfluence Consultants and Advisors have helped identify more than $2 million in grants, loans and other funding opportunities for members, working in neighboring Orange, Brevard, Lake, Osceola, Polk, Seminole and Volusia counties.

About 30% are owned by women or minorities. Companies are indexed in the Cenfluence Directory.

Orange County provided $630,000 in funding in February 2021 to get Cenfluence rolling and pledged $550,000 for the second year.

Eric Ochkowitz, Orange County’s chief economic development officer, said the organization’s strong debut indicates a promising future.

“The big push in the first year was identifying and signing companies and organizing them into groups,” he said. “We’re definitely seeing results and we’re happy with the work they’re already doing, but I think it’s going to continue to grow bigger and better from now on.”

Oshkowitz said he expects more companies to sign on to one of Cenfluence’s four groups: energy and environmental sciences; games, entertainment and esports; The sciences of learning and human performance. and life sciences. In Orange County alone, 2,500 companies can fit into a group.

According to figures published on the Cenfluence website, companies in the conglomerates employ about 85,000 workers and pack a combined economic aggregate of more than $8.5 billion annually. Companies can learn more and sign up for cluster membership at Cenfluence.com.

Membership is free. Hopefully, the county’s pay will be in higher-paying jobs, Oshkowitz said.

Landin and Codecraft Works, which create online technology education programs, were among the first recruits by Cenfluence employees, who discovered her company after it won a grant from the National Science Foundation for innovations in teaching STEM skills.

Although always confident in her ideas, Landin said she often felt lonely at work before joining Cenfluence’s cluster initiative.

“Cenfluence is exactly what we need to help create partnerships across the state,” said Landin, whose company fits into the Human Learning and Performance Sciences group. “They gave us introductions and helped us build relationships that we hope will lead to business and revenue.”

She described the connection as “like having partners supporting us.”

Cenfluence also helped connect Codecraft Works with Michelle Taub, associate professor of learning sciences and educational research at the University of Central Florida. Together, they presented a proposal to help adults gain hands-on experience by performing in a virtual environment, an idea that saw them become a finalist in a national competition with a $4 million prize pool.

Clusters are regional groupings of allied industries and research groups, said Andrea Weser-Browner, chief innovation and emerging technology officer for Orange County, who has studied industrial clusters in Europe where the strategy has proven successful for 30 years.

She said some clusters may grow normally, such as the county’s tourism and hospitality industry.

Sohl said that others may need help to become an effective force.

“I’m going to give you shining examples of what’s really here,” Suhl said, explaining the collections to Orange County Commissioners last fall. “We are the world leaders in simulation modeling and training. Our Tourism and Hospitality group is the envy of the planet. What about optics and photonics? Another major group with deep research at UCSD and an active and expanding group of businesses nearby.”

He said that they are all thriving and all rely on technology and innovation.

Modeling, simulation, and training has grown into a $6 billion-a-year industry in Central Florida as government contracts flow through the region — many commissioned by the Department of Defense for Military Simulation Command Centers, based in Orlando.

Clusters are “a salient feature of all modern economies, making regions uniquely competitive for jobs and private investment,” according to the The US Cluster Mapping Project, a study initiative led by the Harvard Business School’s Institute for Strategy and Competitiveness.

Cenfluence aims to diversify the region’s economy by helping local tech companies build a global reputation to attract customers and investors such as Walt Disney World and Universal Studios to attract tourists from around the world, Oshkowitz said.

“It’s a place where group members can find funding resources, research and development talent, and collaboration partners,” he said.

Members receive weekly email newsletters, which include alerts for state and federal grant opportunities, business competitions, and educational events. They can join private LinkedIn groups to share their company’s needs and celebrate successes.

They are given access to monthly webinars on applying for innovation grants and finding international business.

Cenfluence has created a members-only resource directory with over 100 vetted business resources in Central Florida.

The organization is building a job bank for its website where group members can advertise their job opportunities.

Cenfluence also organizes get-togethers between cluster members and potential clients. This month, members of the Energy and Environmental Science Group will meet with representatives of the Orlando Utilities Commission to discuss what utilities are looking for in partners.

The organization arranged for TECHFIT Digital Surgery to participate as an exhibitor during last month’s global meeting of the Society for Healthcare Information and Management Systems giant at the Orange County Convention Center.

“We got some very interesting leads for potential clients,” said Mauricio Toro, CEO and co-founder of the company, which makes 3D-printed and custom medical implants in Daytona Beach.

Although they are smart, Cenfluence consultant Mark Spinoglio said, they are often unsure where to turn for help or resources.

“If you’re an entrepreneur and you set up a small business, you’re busy and down and focused on revenue, and focused on keeping this company afloat. You may not know everything that is available to help you,” said Spinoglio, who has worked closely with groups in Europe. “We can play a major role in helping individual businesses navigate what is available to help them thrive not only in the region but globally.”

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Cenfluence buoyed the hopes of young entrepreneurs like Kyle Morrand, founder and CEO of Orlando-based 302 Interactive, which started as a video game studio and has expanded to include immersive experiences through augmented reality technology.

Augmented reality is an interactive experience that combines real-world environments augmented with virtual features.

302 Interactive’s clients ranged from small start-ups to Universal Orlando.

“Working with other business leaders in the region has always been a really good practice for me,” said Moran, 28, whose company is part of the gaming, entertainment and esports group. “I’m really excited to share my thoughts on how our technology community as a whole can move forward and about Cenfluence having the resources to implement some of these ideas.”

Commissioner Nicole Wilson, which includes the Disney neighborhood, said these types of ideas offer promise beyond theme parks.

“I think there is a misconception about Orange County being a one-trick pony,” she said during the Cenfluence panel discussion. “As we discuss these other groups and the kinds of innovative businesses we have here, I feel like we’ll have more and more in the coming years to show off.”

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