Thomas O’Neal remembers feeling like a hotshot on an unusually cold day in October 1999. He and other university and community leaders were in Central Florida Research Park for a ribbon-cutting ceremony to open the UCF Business Incubation Program in a 30,000-square-foot, leased space.
As the brisk air whipped through the crowd, he remembers John C. Hitt, who was UCF’s president at the time, saying with a laugh — “I thought incubation was supposed to be warm.”
The cold didn’t bother O’Neal that day. He was too excited to see his hard work — fundraising $300,000 to start the program — come to life. He got the idea years ago as the associate director for the Center for Research and Education in Optics and Lasers, where he saw faculty and graduate students come up with novel ideas in their labs but struggle to commercialize them. He envisioned a solution to this — a one-stop shop with educational resources, business coaching, and even office space for entrepreneurs and startups to work from as they were guided on how to turn their ideas into profitable companies.
Among the first to test out O’Neal’s vision was Dan Rini ’95 ’97MS ’00PhD, who in 1999 was an engineering Ph.D. candidate with an idea that seemed viable for commercialization. He had developed cooling systems for high-powered lasers.
“I decided when I was a grad student that I wanted to start a company, but I was smart enough to know that I didn’t know much about how to do that,” says Rini.
In 2000 he joined the Business Incubation Program, and within one year, Rini Technologies came to life.
“[The program] helped me avoid pitfalls when starting the business,” says Rini. “They really helped me structure the company and focus on my initial customer-market segment.”
The groundwork laid more than 20 years ago has sustained Rini Technologies, which today is a 20-employee operation in Oviedo, Florida, that builds heating and cooling systems for the military and even NASCAR. They pivoted their technology from its original use, and now help those on the front lines stay cool while in body armor and bulletproof vests, as well as professional drivers in fire suits. Another product helps keep U.S. Navy scuba divers warm when submerged in cold water for long periods of time.
To this day, Rini Technologies is a pride point for O’Neal. It’s just what he had envisioned — ideas born at UCF could come to life and blossom into companies that add jobs and economic prosperity to the region. But the work hasn’t stopped there. In the more than 22 years since that cold October day, the Business Incubation Program has facilitated strategic and purposeful startup growth for more than 600 companies, leading to $2.4 billion in economic impact.
It’s not out of luck that the program has been such a success. Just as it teaches businesses to pivot when the market calls for it, the program has pivoted itself.
From a Single Incubator to Entire Ecosystems
On January 11, UCF President Alexander N. Cartwright, Rob Panepinto of the UCF Business Incubation Program and Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer used ceremonious oversized scissors to cut the ribbon to a new incubator in the heart of downtown Orlando.
The space — the historic Kress Building — is outfitted with room for collaboration and individual offices, plus floor-to-ceiling windows with views of Orange Avenue. StarterStudio, which works to raise Central Florida’s profile in the eyes of investors, is a partner.
“I wish we could see the change in uses as our downtown evolves over time,” Dyer said before cutting the ribbon. “I don’t know exactly what all has been here other than the Kress store, but what I can tell you is I’ve gotten my hair cut 100 times in this space,” he said, pointing to the back right corner of the building. “As well as bought jewelry in the former [C6 by] Bay Hill Jewelers. This jacket I’m wearing, I bought in this space,” he said, pointing to the opposite corner of the building.
From retail to technology and entrepreneurship — it’s the crux of downtown Orlando’s story of evolution.
Inside, startups in digital media and technology industries are filling the space. Grouping companies of similar industries is all part of the strategy — something the incubation program calls Innovation Districts.
“We moved into this Innovation District strategy with two main goals in mind: to focus our energy on technology companies in very specific industries where the university has talent and expertise, but that also will be the innovative industries of tomorrow that the community wants to scale and build as we look to diversify our region,” says Panepinto, director of Innovation Districts Strategy. “The other goal is to use the incubator to build community, an ecosystem. If you look at other communities’ growth, it’s been around clusters of private enterprise, entrepreneurs, government and universities working together to help scale the growth of these companies.”
The incubation program adopted the Innovation Districts strategy three years ago as the program gradually grew from the first incubator site in Research Park to eight incubators across the region. Under the current leadership of Panepinto and Carol Ann Dykes Logue, director of Programs and Operations for the Innovation Districts and Incubation Program, the strategy has transformed the use of the Lake Nona Business Incubator that, in its opening year in 2018, served clients of all industries. Now, it hand-selects early stage, scalable businesses in life sciences, healthcare and medical simulation — companies that can benefit from the specialized resources available in the burgeoning Medical City. It’s what Panepinto refers to as the “ecosystem,” and it’s paid off: In fiscal year 2020–21, incubator companies in Lake Nona employed 55 people and generated $2.9 million in revenue.
“[We] focus our energy on technology companies in very specific industries where the university has talent and expertise.”
The downtown Orlando incubator is the latest to join the roster of Innovation Districts being orchestrated by the Business Incubation Program. In addition to the Lake Nona Innovation District, the third is the Central Florida Research Park Innovation District that is home to the Research Park Incubator, which specializes in defense and military, modeling simulation, cybersecurity and similar companies, and the Photonics Incubator on the UCF main campus.
In addition to those four incubator sites, other business incubators are throughout the metro Orlando region and serve a variety of early stage companies that are positioned for growth. Those incubators are in Daytona Beach, Kissimmee, Winter Springs and in Orlando on East Colonial Drive, and serve Volusia, Osceola, Seminole and Orange counties, respectively.
“It’s all about driving more growth — in downtown, and in and around these innovative clusters and entrepreneurs,” Panepinto says.
Attract Top Talent — from Near and Far
Mauricio Toro spent most of 2017–18 traveling around the United States. He visited Indiana, Massachusetts, New Jersey, California and Florida with one goal in mind: to find the best spot for a U.S.-based office and manufacturing facility for his company, Techfit Digital Surgery.
The Colombia-based company specializes in custom 3D-printed implants for reconstructive surgery. Its primary markets are Latin America, the Middle East and Europe. Now, the company has its sights set on expansion in the United States.
As Toro toured U.S. markets, a couple of objectives were critical: easy travel to and from Colombia and other international markets, and space to eventually build a manufacturing facility.
He found all of that in Central Florida, but what sealed the deal was the Business Incubation Program’s Soft Landing Program. It does as the name implies — helps out-of-market companies enter the Central Florida business landscape more gracefully and purposefully than they might on their own. The program has drawn six out-of-market companies to the region since late 2020 alone.
Techfit Digital Surgery became a client of the Soft Landing Program at the Volusia County Business Incubator in August 2018. Since then, Toro and his team have received invaluable coaching from incubator advisors on the healthcare and insurance systems in the U.S. They’ve also been introduced to local financial advisors and attorneys, and they’ve been invited to all the right networking events.
“It’s saved us a lot of resources, energy and the mistakes we might have made if we tried to figure it out ourselves,” says Toro.
In a few short years, Techfit’s Central Florida operation has grown from a single employee to six, has built a manufacturing facility, and has secured U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval for its product to be used in mandible and maxilla facial surgeries. Next, it’s working on securing FDA approval for use in cranial and thoracic surgeries.
“What we expected when we decided to come here and be part of the incubator program — reality has surpassed even our most ambitious expectations,” says Toro. “It’s a no-brainer to be part of this program if you want a presence here [in Central Florida].”
“It’s saved us a lot of resources, energy and the mistakes we might have made if we tried to figure it out ourselves.”
Adapt, but Stay True to the Original Vision
In the two decades since its grand opening, the Business Incubation Program has evolved from a university resource to one for the entire region. But the original vision — bring ideas born at the university to life — still rings true.
At 25 years old, Joe Sleppy ’18 is one of the youngest CEOs within the incubation program. His company, Capacitech Energy, uses a wire-shaped capacitor to add energy storage into products that otherwise wouldn’t store energy. Think of batteries or supercapacitors and their clunky shape. Convert that same level of energy into a wire shape, and its applicability expands.
Sleppy learned of this invention while working as an undergraduate researcher in NanoScience Technology Center Professor Jayan Thomas’ lab.
“I remember asking, ‘What do we do now’? Dr. Thomas said it had always been his dream to sell it to industry,” says Sleppy, an electrical engineering alum.
That dream became Sleppy’s mission. Thanks to mentoring from Thomas, he learned about tech transfer, the role a business plays in the commercialization process, and how the goal is for research projects to eventually be used in the market.
In 2016, Sleppy entered Capacitech Energy into UCF’s Joust New Venture Competition within the College of Business’ Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership. The competition is like Shark Tank, and pits student entrepreneurs against each other as they vie for thousands of dollars in cash and essential business services. Sleppy won and used his earnings to license the intellectual property of the invention. He also met people there who would later become investors in Capacitech Energy.
Within a year Capacitech Energy became a client of the incubation program, leasing 80 square feet of office space in the Research Park location. There he’s been connected with lawyers and accountants, and he has received personalized coaching on tech commercialization, sales, management and how to write grant proposals. The coaching proved fruitful: Within a couple of years of being an incubator client, Capacitech Energy secured over $1 million in funding through grants and investors.
“[When you’re part of the incubator], you enter a circle of trust that helps you raise capital.”
“[When you’re part of the incubator], you enter a circle of trust that helps you raise capital,” Sleppy says. “We had an investor come visit us and say, ‘Wow, how beautiful is this area?’ My neighbors are Raytheon and Luminar; that’s a big deal. I don’t think people realize the benefit of the optics of being part of a Research Park like this. It instills confidence in the people who come visit us.”
Sleppy is now leasing 150 square feet in the Research Park Incubator for Capacitech Energy, which has grown to three full-time employees — all UCF alums. The company has its sights set on expansion this year, including building a manufacturing facility and growing clientele.
Much like Sleppy’s story, O’Neal knew back in 1999 that it takes a collective effort to raise impactful companies.
“People really couldn’t even spell ‘entrepreneur’ back then,” O’Neal says with a laugh. But not long after — and still today — everyone wants a piece of the incubation program.
As they look ahead to the next 20 years, Panepinto and Logue envision an even stronger presence of the Innovation Districts — perhaps to even build new ones.
“We don’t have a physical incubator on the Space Coast, but as the university continues to focus more and more on our activities in the space industry, and that sector continues to grow, it’s part of our long-term vision to have an incubator over there,” says Logue.
They also will look to the hospitality sector for opportunities to help foster innovation.
“The travel, tourism and hospitality sector is ripe for accelerated technology innovation,” Logue says. “It’s one of our key industry sectors where we need to raise the wages and help make that industry more efficient.”
Panepinto and Logue recognize that in the increasingly digital economy, though, their help may not always happen in a brick-and-mortar space. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the Business Incubation Program was serving companies virtually, and it will continue to do so.
“It’s in the DNA of UCF to look out into the community and ask, ‘How can we support you?’ Other universities had to evolve to figure out how to do that because that wasn’t always their mission.”
“When we started this evolution three years ago at our Innovation Districts and Regional Growth centers, the importance of office space and the concept of the incubation system being about physical space was de-emphasized,” Panepinto says. “Part of our shift in strategy was to support those companies [that work remotely] and to realize that we could.”
Panepinto and Logue also plan to more strongly collaborate with faculty to help create spinoff companies from their innovations. They also plan to work with women-owned businesses that have potential to fill a need of the federal government.
Thanks to a grant secured in 2021 by the Florida High Tech Corridor Council, of which the incubation program is a member, funds are allocated to help position local women-owned businesses for success in the federal Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and the Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs. Through competitive application processes, selected small U.S. businesses can receive a portion of federal research and development dollars through these programs to scale up their product or service if it meets a need of a federal agency. An example is Rini Technologies, which has won numerous SBIR and STTR awards for its products to provide a solution to military members.
“We’ve had a significant number of clients that have built their success using SBIR and STTR. What this opportunity brings is additional bandwidth for us to support women-owned tech companies that could be incubator clients and who haven’t gone after a SBIR or STTR before,” Logue says. “We’ll provide them with additional coaching and education, and they can benefit from the insights of our previous winners.”
As Panepinto and Logue lay the foundation for the next generation of the Business Incubation Program, they are grateful one thing has stayed the same — unwavering support from university leadership and local government partners.
“Efforts to diversify the economy are a generational effort, and we’re fortunate that our governments recognize that,” Panepinto says.
“It’s in the DNA of UCF to look out into the community and ask, ‘How can we support you?’ Other universities had to evolve to figure out how to do that because that wasn’t always their mission,” Logue says. “But for us, it’s how UCF was founded.”