Gainesville's Startup Alley covets UF computer grads


Austin Richardson searches through a box of USB cables at the Gainesville Hackerspace on Tuesday, April 23, 2013 in Gainesville, Fla.

Matt Stamey/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Sunday, April 28, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, April 27, 2013 at 8:54 p.m.

In a factory-like basement crammed with shelves loaded with electronic parts and work benches covered in computers, tools and wires, University of Florida students are getting ready to pitch their mobile phone applications to a panel of area entrepreneurs.

They huddle in teams of three or four over their laptops and iPads, making whatever last-minute tweaks are needed before demonstrating their projects here in “Hackerspace” — the name given to a low-ceilinged, unfinished space with bare walls and exposed air ducts that once housed a nightclub. Some wonder where their missing teammates could be and whether they will show up in time.

This is a contest after all. There is real prize money at stake.

And there might be jobs.

“Oh, yeah, and by the way, I am hiring as many people as possible,” says Augi Lye, chief executive officer of Trendy Entertainment, a local online gaming company and the sponsor of this year's Killer App Contest.

The event, now in its 12th year, is the brainchild of Sumi Helal, a UF professor of computer and information science and engineering who also is co-founder and director of the Gator Tech Smart House. Helal conceived of the Killer App contest as a way to give students real experience developing a prototype and the pressure of presenting it to a group of potential investors.

It's an important experience for students enrolled in highly sought-after computer degree programs who have an expectation of finding good-paying jobs after graduation but lack the experience or proven track record of developing products that employers want.

Not coincidentally, the entrepreneurs, innovators and investors behind the success of Gainesville's Startup Alley — the burst of new companies led by UF students and graduates in the downtown area — need a highly skilled, talented labor pool to fill key positions as their companies grow and expand. They are working with the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce on figuring out ways to keep those students in town rather than following the yellow brick road to the bright lights — big cities where Google, Yahoo and Microsoft are headquartered.

And UF is looking at how many succeed in getting jobs, because one day the state is going to tie funding to performance metrics that include the number of students with science, technology, engineering and math degrees who find work after graduation.

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UF produced 413 graduates in computer engineering, electrical engineering, computer sciences and information technology in 2011-12, according to information submitted in an application to the Board of Governors for a performance-based funding grant. The percentage of those graduates who get jobs and certification in targeted tech industries will factor more and more into future funding.

The good news: UF graduates are in demand.

“We have a lot of opportunities for new employees,” says Charles Engelke, chief technology officer of Infotech, which has been in Gainesville for 37 years and has 250 employees. He was at a computer science fair at the CSE Building on Monday scouting for recruits. “We're looking for people who want to own the result and not just be a part of the process.”

Engelke says he's looking for graduates who can demonstrate critical thinking and problem-solving skills, as well as an aptitude to learn on their own.

The same criteria are expressed by Mike Fabiano, talent recruiter for Mobiquity, a company that just signed a deal to come to Gainesville and create 260 jobs locally.

“We're looking for students who have devoted time to developing software,” Fabiano says. Mobiquity wants to see students who can demonstrate a fundamental understanding of the foundational theories of computing so they can solve new problems, create their own games and apps, and quickly learn new systems.

Those problem-solving skills are on display by the students demonstrating their prototypes at the Killer App competition.

Students from Helal's mobile platforms class split up into teams and create mobile applications as their final project. Sixty-three students split off into 20 teams this year, and only seven made the cut to present their projects in the competition.

“We put a lot of pressure on them, so the toughest made it,” Helal says.

He says he pushes the students to create viable, commercial apps, “to not teach the normal classroom experience but to create an environment that simulates the commercial world.”

It's important to give students practical experience so they can jump into the rapidly changing commercial world beyond the classroom.

“The hardest part is getting their feet wet,” says Lye, who graduated from UF in 2006 with degrees in computer engineering and electrical engineering. “These kids are making their first foray into app development. I think it's great.”

This is the first time many of these students have had to make a business presentation outside the classroom, and it shows. One group's presenter gets tongue-tied trying to explain what their app actually does. Another doesn't understand when a judge asks what makes their app “sticky” or “addictive.” More than one group runs into technical problems, from a video that won't play to poor audio to a projection camera that won't show the app on a large screen, moving the judges to tell the contestants to just tell them what makes their app special.

Besides Lye, the judges are David Whitney, a former venture capitalist from Silicon Valley and current “entrepreneur in residence” at the UF College of Engineering, and Scott Peeples, the vice president of operations at PeerFit, a local company that created a fitness app and website.

Quincy Liu and Sowmya Hariharan have a travel app that incorporates personal journal entries and photos with travel and weather information available on other websites. When they run into technical problems, Whitney says, “Just tell us what's good about this. Just tell us your story.”

Raj Wilhoit infects the judges with his zeal for the app he developed for an iPad version of the Chinese board-and-stone strategy game “Go.” He explains how he overcame several problems at the back end to make it easy for anyone to use, to keep it simple. In the end, it is an app that replaces an actual board game. He comes in third and gets $100.

Jeremy Rojas, Richard Turner and Colin White make a presentation that avoids the technological pitfalls, staging a live presentation of their Custom Cards app. The pitch, a dealable deck of cards with which as many as eight people could play any number of games, goes over well enough to garner second place and a $150 check from Trendy Entertainment.

The app that received the most interest is called “App finder.” Its team, led by Rohan Menghani, developed an app that mines social media to find out what apps friends are using and how they rate them. Lye says his big concern is whether it would violate any terms of use agreements.

But all judges find that to be the most interesting and give the team the first-place prize of $500.

***

Watching from a pair of folding seats near the back of the room are Ken and Linda McGurn, local real estate developers who donated the old Wise Guys nightclub to the local computer tech community as an after-hours hangout known as Hackerspace, in which budding innovators can develop their own ideas into viable prototypes.

“This is new, exciting stuff,” Linda McGurn says.

Ken McGurn estimates that as many as 350 programmers, coders and designers are working within a four-block radius of Harry's Seafood Grille. They are scattered throughout the cobbled streets of downtown, at the Sun Center, Union Street Station, and the Power District — properties developed by McGurn.

To keep Hackerspace going, those who use the space cover the utilities out of membership dues, says Dan Evenson, a UF graduate who recently moved back to Gainesville to start his own company, Pathway Systems. He applied for space at the Innovation Hub and hired one of his employees from the Hackerspace community.

Most of these tech companies were started by UF graduates with an idea or invention and the gumption to go out and find someone to invest in them. One of these investors is Whitney, who, as managing director of Energent Ventures, has helped GrooveShark, Trendy Entertainment and Altavain.

Part of the tech growth has been fueled by the UF Innovation Hub, a $13.5 million three-story office building on Southwest Second Avenue about halfway between UF and downtown that serves as an “all-inclusive” business incubator.

The Hub houses the UF Office of Technology Licensing, has two floors of dry labs and wet labs for research, and patent attorneys, accountants and investment firms as permanent tenants.

Jane Muir, who runs the Innovation Hub and is associate director of the Office of Licensing Technology at UF, says another 200 tech jobs were created by companies that got their start at the incubator.

“In less than a year and a half since we opened our doors, we can account for 200 jobs of companies that got their starts here in the building,” Muir says.

At the Innovation Hub, students work on projects they hope will spawn startup companies that will move out into their own space. The bathrooms have showers because tenants often spend the night working on their projects.

The Hub is designed to “create collisions” between students, creators, investors, patent attorneys and accountants who specialize in startups. Companies that get their start in an incubator have an 87 percent success rate, and 78 percent of those stay in the community, Muir says. Typically, 80 percent of startup companies outside of incubator support fail.

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Feathr, a company founded by UF undergraduate engineering students Aidan Augustin and Neal Ormsbee in 2011, occupies a lab on the second floor. They spend their days cramped in a tight space with as many as five other employees.

Augustin says he quit attending classes about 18 months ago to focus on developing a mobile app to replace business cards, an idea that came out of a visit to the Stanford University campus. He and others from UF attended meetups and wanted to exchange contact information with the people they met in Silicon Valley, but nobody had conventional paper business cards, Augustin says.

“We wanted to stay in touch, but there was no straightforward way to do that.”

They are due in early May to launch the next version of Feathr, an app that will enable event organizers to allow people to network with each other and with speakers at conferences, receive updates on schedules and rooms, share personal information and build profiles. The company just received a $150,000 investment from the Tampa Bay Chapter of TiE, The Indus Entrepreneurs, to market the app.

Entrepreneurs, though, are finding it difficult to fill positions. At a recent group forum of startup owners and officers sponsored by the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce, the biggest issue was finding qualified and experienced people to fill the jobs they need filled.

The consensus was that students are loaded with theory but not so much experience. Even finding a graduate who could show he or she had developed an app or Web page would go a long way, they say. Finding candidates with five years of experience is difficult, too.

Even applicants with master's degrees and two or three Web graphics in their portfolio are hard to find. “I don't need five years. Show me three things you've done,” says Toby Sembower, CEO at Digital Brands.

Josh Greenberg, co-founder of the online music-sharing website Grooveshark, has come up with a Grooveshark University and internship program to cultivate employees. After a year of layoffs and downsizing, Greenberg says he is hiring again, but he also has had to go outside Gainesville to recruit people with the skills he needs.

“Gainesville has a serious need for high-end developers,” Greenberg says. “Nobody is going to turn them away.”

Lye plans to develop his own employees and new prototypes. He has launched the Hacker House, a pet project of his where eight of the brightest engineers will live in a renovated Victorian house in the Duck Pond area, with 12 weeks to come up with eight viable prototypes to show investors.

“It's something that is lacking in other incubators. They are nice spaces, and they have good ideas, but nothing to show for it. Hacker House's sole focus is creating prototypes. Once you have that, you can build a company around it, build a business plan and approach investors.”

***

Some of Gainesville's new entrepreneurs say some of those in academia at UF don't get the startup culture in Gainesville. They are long on theory and short on practice, says Nick Kundra, chief executive officer of Partender, an inventory app for bars and nightclubs.

Persuading graduating students to stay in Gainesville rather than go after the lure of bigger bucks or more urban culture is going to be a challenge, they acknowledge. But what they can offer, they say, is the vibe that Gainesville has, the beauty of its natural surroundings, its affordability and all the things there are to do downtown for young programmers.

Matt Carroll, a UF graduate with bachelor's degrees in computer science and math and a master's degree in digital technology, started his own business, Studio 4 Development, after he got fed up with the interview process that larger companies put graduates through.

“I have an opportunity to do a lot of different things, creative ability you don't get at a large company,” Carroll says.

Jessica Gates, chief operating officer of Tap Shield, a mobile blue light app for smart phones founded by former UF Student Body President Jordan Johnson, did her graduate work at UF.

“We have openings for full-time IOS and android developers,” she says. “We are looking for students with actual projects. There are so many students who are passionate about mobile development — that's the people we're looking for.”

One student dropped by to describe his mobile app for a Chinese board game, she says. That student was Wilhoit, who competed in the Killer App competition days earlier.

“He was so passionate,” she says. “We're considering him for a summer internship. I love the passion he had for mobile development.”

Wilhoit was on the fence about staying in Gainesville, where he has lived since he was 12. He graduated from Buchholz High School. He went to UF. He lives downtown. And he recently connected with the downtown Hackerspace community.

Some of the people he met through Hackerspace helped him out on his Go game app, he says.

“It's really cool,” he says. “You just get together to create things.”

That makes his decision to stay or go all the more painful. He'd like to stay in Gainesville because of the scene, but he also is weighing the option of going elsewhere for more money.

Money is a big incentive, he admits. Starting pay with a big company in a big city outside Florida is around $80,000, and at a bigger city in Florida around $60,000, he says. And while Gainesville companies might not have that kind of money to offer, they have other incentives — such as working on your own project and getting it to market.

“I have at least one offer in California,” Wilhoit says. “Is it worth moving there?”

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