Published Friday, April 22, 2016

South Florida's reputation for being a place where retirees live and tourists play isn't complementing its industrious startup scene.

The region is known worldwide for its beaches, but its growing technology sector is sometimes hidden even to those who know the area.

Hutchinson joined a panel of startup CEOs at the Palm Beach County Business Development Board's 2016 Economic Development Forum on Thursday to discuss what the industry needs to grow in South Florida. He was joined by Steffen Bruenn, CEO and founder of Yachtico in Boca Raton; Michael Gonzalez, CEO of Perfect in West Palm Beach and Chris Nielsen, founder and CEO of Levatas in Palm Beach Gardens. Brodi Jackson, co-founder and managing principal of Caerus Ventures, moderated the panel.

When asked what their companies need to grow in South Florida, the executives offered a range of remedies, from adding more transportation options to luring more big-name tech companies to the area.

"I'd like to see an anchor company open a satellite office here in Palm Beach County," said Perfect's Gonzalez, meaning Apple Inc. or Google Inc. "That would give us a huge injection of workforce talent to have access to as we grow and scale."

But technology companies aren't coming to South Florida if they don't think the talent isn't here already. Yachtico moved its global headquarters from Germany to Boca Raton and started off with six workers. The company aims to grow to 50 workers over the next two years, but that will be tough, its CEO says.

"The biggest challenge is finding the talent here," Bruenn said, adding that tech workers may not consider South Florida because lifestyles elsewhere may be more appealing. "The commute here is terrible. It's an hour in the morning and an hour at night."

Having better transportation options, larger technology campuses and better ways to connect with angel investors were also on the list of needs. But South Florida's wide reputation for being anything but a tech hub seemed to be at the root of most issues the CEOs faced.

"As a state, we need to show more about the culture down here, that you can actually build successful companies," Hutchinson said. "You don't get that message outside of Florida. We need to get the image of Florida, outside of Florida, to be perceived a bit differently."

South Florida doesn't entirely deserve the reputation it has for being a home to too few startups. According to a recent survey from WalletHub that ranked more than 1,000 cities to find the best places to start small businesses, five cities in the tri-county area were listed as having the highest number of startups per capita.

Technology businesses already based in South Florida are gaining traction and employees as they develop industry-changing products, including Sato Global Solutions in Fort Lauderdale and the mysterious virtual reality firm Magic Leap in Dania Beach.

The region's economic development organizations also aggressively seek high-paying technology, startup and biotech companies that want to relocate to South Florida and bring their talent. Boca Raton approved incentives last week for a confidential information technology company to create 838 jobs in the city and another confidential information technology company wants to create 142 jobs in Broward County.

"Companies don’t locate to locations where there’s not talent," said Kelly Smallridge, president of the BDB.

Bank of America was the presenting sponsor of the BDB's 2016 Economic Development Forum, which brought hundreds of business men and women to the Palm Beach County Convention Center on Thursday. The BDB is the official public/private economic development organization for Palm Beach County.

South Florida Business Journal
Emon Reiser




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