There is a palpable undercurrent of momentum in the Orlando tech community propelled by several recent milestone successes by icons in the region’s tech ecosystem.
Autonomous vehicle startup Luminar, headquartered in Orlando, recently executed a reverse merger with Gores Metropoulos. This led the company to ring the NASDAQ bell to begin trading publicly for the first time under the ticker symbol LAZR in a nod to the region’s historic expertise in photonics and optics.
Orlando’s legacy of laser research and development yields a deep pool of highly skilled tech talent and fuels the region’s innovative technology ecosystem. It’s what enabled Luminar to create their revolutionary product that is the envy of their competitors and caught the eye of big-name investors.
According to Jason Eichenholz, co-founder and CTO of Luminar Technologies and Orlando Tech Council member, “William C. Schwartz, the father of lasers and optics in Orlando, established a legacy of excellence with University of Central Florida’s CREOL that we have harnessed to fuel our progress in this field.”
While many of the headlines focused on this rare Orlando IPO, the story behind that story is the return on investment that many Orlando angel investors received as a result of the reverse merger. Shares in the tech company more than doubled as they went public.
Still, that’s only half of the story. At the same time, Orlando startup darling Fattmerchant also received a majority investment from Greater Sum Ventures, which resulted in exponential ROI for the company’s initial angel investors.
“This investment says we’re really moving from selling products to really becoming a technology platform.”Jacques Fu, Fattmerchant co-founder, CTO and Orlando Tech Council member
The investment represents validation that proves Orlando’s tech ecosystem not only presents a great environment for entrepreneurs to start and scale tech companies, but also a profitable opportunity to invest in them.
Elevating Orlando’s Entrepreneurial Profile
It is a moment that speaks to the region’s value for founders, talent and investors who were previously focused on traditional tech markets like Silicon Valley and Boston.
“The region’s collaborative and interconnected tech ecosystem combined with its deep and diversified pool of highly skilled tech talent ignites innovation and allows companies to achieve successes previously not thought possible outside of major tech hubs like Silicon Valley,” says Tim Giuliani, president and CEO of the Orlando Economic Partnership. “The success of both Fattmerchant and Luminar are evidence that the Orlando region is elevating its status as a global leader in entrepreneurship and innovation.”
“This is a game-changing moment for the Orlando region’s angels, and this is only the beginning,” says Charlie Lewis, founder of BlueWave Investment Partners and the technology capital group Project Orlando as well as an Orlando Tech Council member.
“Now the angels have money coming back so they can continue to circulate – it proved this will work. This is a pinpointable deal.”Kathy Chiu, managing partner at DeepWork Capital
Over the past two and a half decades, the region has seen a handful of major IPOs and exits. Sawtek was the region’s first major IPO, going public in 1996 and exiting in 2001. Channel Intelligence and Voxeo followed with exits in 2013, then ZeroChaos in 2017 and Enablesoft in 2019.
“ZeroChaos was famous for being a big exit,” says Kathy Chiu, managing partner at DeepWork Capital. “It was one of those exits created many angel investors, another example of people getting liquidity here and then being able to invest in something else.”
“If you can go wide with that capital and show this is an up-and-coming market to invest in and get your money back, it’s a key signal to tech startups that want to invest and grow in Orlando,” Fu says.
Connectivity Driving Investment
Despite these previous successes, attracting investors to Orlando has historically proven difficult. Both in the region and beyond, there existed a lack of awareness of Orlando’s tech sector as well as a lack of interconnectedness between the various tech hubs throughout the state, including Miami, Tampa and Jacksonville. However, Chiu says that lack of connection is a thing of the past.
“The challenge used to be how we can link these cities. But by now we know all the angel groups across the state,” Chiu says.
“It’s about the connectedness of these communities. Now you’re seeing people actually knowing one another. Those informal linkages are very important for innovation.”Kathy Chiu, managing partner at DeepWork Capital
Chiu also says more entrepreneurs and investors are beginning to understand Orlando’s value proposition. The region’s low cost of living and business-friendly tax environment makes investing here attractive. Moreover, Chiu says that, because Orlando is a “smallish” market, companies aren’t expending energy on the “hype” associated with entrepreneurial hotbeds like Silicon Valley.
“We were investing because the region is undervalued and under-invested—it is a business opportunity,” Chiu says. “These are all reasonably priced deals, and these founders are capital efficient. They all spent really intelligently to create value and they are extremely thoughtful and data driven. Everything is so evidenced based.”
Maintaining the Momentum
To keep up this momentum, Chiu says the first step is for the Orlando innovation community to get more exposure to startups. “You can’t hurt in getting educated – you just might find something that is very promising and resonates with you.”
For people just learning about tech, Chiu recommends attending Synapse Summit in March 2021 and Synapse Orlando when it returns Fall 2021 as a good starting point.
“Florida Venture Forum is more investor centric. For a look at life sciences – Bio Florida is a big one. There’s also the pitch competitions across the state. Rollins runs a great one and StarterStudio is also great. Those can be very eye-opening.”
Fu recommends leaning local with business decisions to propel momentum.
“If you’re looking to invest, you should allocate a portion to local tech companies. If you’re a consumer, see what comes from the Orlando area.”Jacques Fu, Fattmerchant co-founder, CTO and Orlando Tech Council member
The Orlando Tech Council, in partnership with the University of Central Florida, established the Tech Connect program this year to directly address this opportunity. By engaging with local industry on their tech and innovation needs the Orlando Tech Council can make strategic suggestions on local startups and second stage companies that could be a potential match. This kind of first customer program seeks to develop a new level of trust within our ecosystem.
But Chiu says creating a fund like Engage in Atlanta would have the most positive impact on Orlando’s tech ecosystem. “They have 10 corporations putting in $1 million each. What that does is whenever they invest, it is because one of the member corporations can take the company under their wing—that’s where the value of that group comes from.”
Chiu says that because most corporations aren’t interested in being VCs, it gives them a cheap way to buy new technology.
“It’s outsourcing innovation,” Chiu says. “A group like that presents huge benefits for founders. What are the chances for a founder to march into their investor’s or customer’s CEO’s office. The fund exists to help corporations have a piece of startups. For the startups, it’s what they can do with that access.”
It’s that direct connectivity of local enterprise companies either investing or contracting with local startups and second stage companies that can transform the Orlando region’s economy in a lasting way. For now, the opportunity stands for the angel investors that benefited from believing in Orlando companies like Fattmerchant and Luminar to re-invest those funds to fuel even more success stories for companies that call the Orlando region home.
To learn more about the Orlando tech ecosystem or to join the Orlando Tech Council, please visit OrlandoTechCouncil.org or contact Orlando Economic Partnership Vice President of Innovation, Sheena Fowler.