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Is Gainesville the Silicon Valley of the Southeast?

Mark Drapeau (Washington, DC) –

At the University of Florida – perhaps best known for its championship Gators football teams – innovation isn’t the first thing on people’s minds. But that football team famously invented what you now know as Gatorade. And now they’re building Innovation Square, which they hope spearheads their town of Gainesville into becoming the “Silicon Valley of the Southeast.”

Innovation Square, a public/private partnership, is a a 40-acre site to be developed over the next few years to include research facilities, residences, shops, restaurants, and technology-based businesses. Within this Square will be a more narrowly focused “Innovation Hub,” a 48,000-square-foot business incubator for technology start-up companies. The Hub was paid for with an $8.2 million grant from the Federal Economic Development Administration and a $5 million match from the University of Florida.

Since the Hub opened in October 2011, more than 15 companies have moved in – and they importantly now have access to the university’s research and facilities, something that distinguishes startup incubators associated with universities from those that are not. Interestingly, and perhaps surprisingly to some, the University of Florida was ranked the premiere public university for transferring research discoveries into the marketplace. Further, Gainesville is considered a national hub for green and health technologies and has more incubators per capita than any other U.S. city.

And the companies are diverse. Last week, in part because of the Hub, MindTree – a global IT project engineering company based out of India – selected Gainesville as its first U.S. location. Many of the companies are doing work with public sector implications. Apollidon is an online learning company. eTect is working on solutions related to networks of connected sensors. NeuroNet leverages neuroscience knowledge to help young children learn. Shadow Health is finding innovative ways to educate the next generation of health workers, globally, by using technology.

You can read about all the companies in the Innovation Hub at the University of Florida here.

Having such an incubator near a University campus is about more than just the companies and investors involved – it’s also about enriching the university’s student life. I talked with undergraduate Valerie Sheehan, who’s getting a BA in business with a minor in entrepreneurship, and the President and CEO of the UF Entrepreneurship Club about how the Hub has affected her student experience. She related,

From a student’s perspective, the Innovation Hub has been an amazing addition to the innovation ecosystem here in Gainesville. The Entrepreneurship Club (TEC) has had the opportunity to host several of our synergistic events at the Innovation Hub. The most recent event was our 4th Annual Venture Pitch Competition where 10 students had the opportunity to pitch their startup concepts to a room full of successful entrepreneurs, investors, and service providers for a chance to win over $15,800 worth of prizes to get their startups up and running…The relationships that are developed during these encounters are extremely valuable to both the students at UF, and the business leaders of Gainesville, Florida. These opportunities strengthen the reputation of the university, the caliber of entrepreneurial education received by students outside the classroom, and students’ confidence in their own ability to become entrepreneurs.

Big companies are also getting engaged with these new startups. My colleague Brian Johnson, a technology evangelist based in Orlando, told me about his experiences with the Hub.

Working with the Innovation Hub at the University of Florida has been a tremendous experience. Startups in this program range from software companies coming out of events like 3 Day Startup, to multi-million dollar medical startups. Through the Microsoft BizSpark program, we’re working with companies that are investigating building Windows Phone applications, building in the Azure cloud, and companies that are planning Windows 8 applications.

No doubt, other large companies like Microsoft who make platforms and have assets which younger companies can use will get engaged in places like the Hub and creative universities like University of Florida as they build networks of innovative companies reinventing the America we live in.

Dr. Mark Drapeau is part of the Microsoft Office of Civic Innovation in Washington, DC.

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Corey McCarren

Incubators are a great asset to local communities. The lab I work for is set in an incubator and the incubator provides some valuable hi-tech jobs to the town. It also, as you’ve noted, provides some opportunities for students and recent graduates.