South Florida has blossomed in the tech world. The tri‑county area is unlikely to replace or replicate Silicon Valley but resembles aspects of the San Francisco‑area hub of technology development. Not exactly a sudden tech boom, what Broward, Miami‑Dade and Palm Beach counties are experiencing is more of a tech bloom with roots in the last century.
“We’re kind of returning to our roots. We are the home of the IBM personal computer; it was built up in Boca Raton,” says Bob Swindell of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Alliance. “The granddaddy, the company that originally started building a reputation for South Florida, was Motorola, with its work out of Plantation, developing flip phones and push-to-talk technology. They were a driver for a lot of other technology companies that came down here.”
Online retailer Amazon was a driver, too. South Florida made the short list in 2018 when Amazon was seeking a U.S. location for a second headquarters. South Florida didn’t win the nationwide contest, but the quest heightened interest among tech companies in Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties. “There were a lot of technology companies that called me, after the [short list] rankings came out, that wanted to know more about South Florida, and a lot of media that followed that,” Swindell says.
One of the latest drivers to encourage tech companies to move to South Florida was a pivotal tweet by Miami’s mayor almost two years ago. In a Twitter exchange Dec. 4, 2020, a venture capitalist suggested moving Silicon Valley to Miami, and Miami Mayor Francis Suarez made national headlines by tweeting, “How can I help?” The mayor’s tweet added to momentum behind a digital enhancement of the South Florida economy as technical talent accumulates in the tri-county area, including local college graduates as well as migrants who’ve relocated. For Swindell, it’s all about regional momentum more than local competition.
“Mayor Suarez has done a phenomenal job of really building that brand,” he says. “I’m not afraid of the Miami brand. We want to figure out how we can leverage that great branding that Miami has been able to do. We’re all confident we’re going to enjoy the financial and wealth-building effects of bringing high-wage, high-skill individuals to South Florida.”
The number of tech workers in South Florida stood at 66,660 in 2021, up 11,100 or 8 percent from 2016, according to a national research report by real estate brokerage firm CBRE. The size of the tech workforce in South Florida last year ranked 25th among the top 30 North American metro markets for tech talent, according to CBRE. There were 378,870 tech workers in the top-ranked San Francisco Bay Area, and 344,520 in second-ranked metropolitan New York City – each pool bigger than the population of Orlando.
But if other metropolitan areas have deeper pools of tech talent, part of those pools has leaked into South Florida, along with venture capital firms and other sources of tech business funding. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, which ended the deductibility of state and local taxes on federal tax returns, has encouraged an inflow of new residents from high-tax locations. It’s been hypothesized that more recently, Florida’s lax pandemic rules and outdoor lifestyle also became migratory magnets.
Florida or Bust
These days, most tech companies seeking office space in Broward and Miami-Dade are relocating from out of state, says Jonathan Kingsley of Colliers International, a commercial property brokerage firm. Tech companies often opt for discount flex space in low-profile locations. “It might be a single-story warehouse converted to office space. They do not want traditional spaces,” he says. “Part of that is to attract the employees that they need to attract. It’s generally not a customer-facing location.”
Fort Lauderdale-based Citrix Systems is a pioneer in technology that enables remote work. Plantation-based Magic Leap is a leader in the development of augmented reality (AR) devices. Other South Florida companies find ways to apply existing technologies rather than develop new ones. A prominent example is Dania Beach-based Chewy. The national pet product retailer uses an online platform to transact sales and fulfill delivery, and its virtual store is so central to its identity that technology is the tail that wags the dog at Chewy.
“Chewy is a great example of a tech company that happens to sell pet food,” says Swindell, the Greater Fort Lauderdale Alliance CEO. “Ryan Cohen built that company in South Florida in a market that’s pretty competitive and they’ve been able to develop a significant business here.”
Jaclyn Baumgarten is another Broward entrepreneur who is aiming high with a tech-infused business model.
Baumgarten just gained millions of reasons to believe in the future of her Fort Lauderdale-based company. She is co-founder and CEO of Boatsetter, an eight-year-old boat rental service that got more liquid last summer by raising $38 million of fresh capital from investors including Suntex Marinas, the Dallas-based owner of Las Olas Marina and Bahia Mar Yachting Center in Fort Lauderdale and 11 other marinas around Florida.
Customers use the Boatsetter mobile-phone app to rent directly from a boat owner or from an owner who also provides a captain and such on-the-water experiences as fishing excursions, sandbar hopping, wakeboarding and sunset cruises. The app matches qualified renters and boat owners with 50,000 listings in 700 locations, including Fort Lauderdale, Miami, New York City and Seattle, as well as Barcelona, Cancún, Cannés and Ibiza. The turnkey service extends to collecting rental payments and arranging for insurance of boats while renters use them.
“We’ve been able to welcome hundreds of thousands of new boaters onto the water for the very first time,” Baumgarten said in a prepared statement announcing the $38 million fundraising. “With this funding, we’ll continue to build on that momentum, bringing more boats, experiences, and markets into the Boatsetter community.”
Baumgarten is one of several entrepreneurs with Broward-based businesses who participate in a mentor-based advisory program run by Endeavor Miami, a Miami-based, not-for-profit organization that helps promising enterprises expand. Endeavor Miami accepts only entrepreneurs whose businesses ring up more than $5 million a year in revenue.
Besides Baumgarten, other Endeavor-guided entrepreneurs in Broward include:
*Two brothers, Eddy and Jorge Prado, who founded Plantation-based Fastmind, a five-year-old company that helps advertisers to optimize the online placement of ad content. The Venezuelan-born brothers switched Fastmind’s focus from online gaming to advertising while they were participating in a business accelerator program run by TheVentureCity, a venture capital firm in Miami.
*Dvir Cohen is CEO of Momentis Surgical, a Fort Lauderdale-based producer of robotic-assisted surgery products. The company announced June 28 that two hospitals in South Florida successfully used its Hominis surgical robot with miniature humanoid-shaped arms for the first time to perform a transvaginal hysterectomy.
*Ricardo Pero is CEO of SellersFunding, a five-year-old provider of ecommerce support services with offices in Weston, New York City and London. Technology news publisher TechCrunch reported in September 2021 that SellersFunding raised about $166 million of venture capital to continue developing financial technology for sellers on Amazon, Shopify and other online platforms.
More than just tech talent is accumulating in South Florida; innovators and investors alike are reshaping the local economic landscape. “It is more than just a tech hub. Investors, hedge funds, and private equity firms have their own reasons for moving here,” says Claudia Duran of Endeavor Miami.
The founders of Weston-based SellersFunding and Plantation-based Fastmind exemplify a preference among some tech business leaders for suburban living in Broward instead of Miami-Dade, Duran says. “People who have families and want a quiet quality of life, they don’t necessarily all go to Coral Gables and Pinecrest,” she says. Another asset in Broward is the Alan B. Levan | NSU Broward Center of Innovation, a 54,000-square-foot space to develop entrepreneurial enterprises on the Nova Southeastern University campus in Davie. “We don’t have that in Miami,” Duran says. “Broward does have it, and it’s ready to be filled. It’s an opportunity to attract talent to work from there.”
The Money & the Magic
Achieving a sense of community among South Florida tech workers is challenging due to the far-flung, linear geography of the I-95 corridor, Duran says. “Here everyone is spread out. You have people all the way from Pinecrest up to Boca. So, it’s not like we’re all together in one place,” she says. “That’s what people don’t understand when they come here. There’s not a tech hub, per se, that’s a place.”
However, South Florida has multiple clusters of tech talent in locations that include Miami’s Wynwood area, where cryptocurrency company Blockchain.com decided to put its headquarters, and the Cypress Creek area of Fort Lauderdale, home of 33-year-old Citrix, one of the most prominent tech companies based in South Florida. Founded and initially staffed in 1989 by former IBM employees, Citrix is a cloud computing and desktop virtualization company that has been an industry leader in helping companies to enable remote work. Citrix says its customer base encompasses more than 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies.
In recruiting prospective Citrix employees from out of state, the company finds that some don’t perceive Fort Lauderdale as technologically well endowed. “It’s hit or miss. There is still a general perception that Fort Lauderdale is kind of a beach town,” says Chris Fleck, vice president and technical fellow at Citrix. Fleck was an IBM employee whom Big Blue transferred in 1993 from New York to South Florida, where he joined Citrix in 2002.
Twenty years ago, a scarcity of tech companies in South Florida undermined efforts to recruit tech employees from outside the area – people feared that if they lost their job, there wouldn’t be another local one for them. Now, a larger local population of tech employers has made South Florida more appealing to workers concerned about job security. “Once they’re here, they don’t necessarily have to move to take another job,” Fleck says. “The fact that there is a number of tech companies and tech startups in the area is definitely a benefit.”
Financiers have followed. Particularly noteworthy among them is a prestigious Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm, Andreessen Horowitz, which chose Miami as one of the locations for the firm’s first three offices outside the San Francisco Bay Area. Andreessen Horowitz’s expansion from Silicon Valley to South Florida signals a dispersion of power in the tech world, says Raul Moas, a senior director of the Knight Foundation. “It’s a sign of the times that the pandemic accelerated. It certainly disrupted the network effect of having to be in a certain geography. People enjoy living in community, but it doesn’t have to be one city only.”
“There’s clearly more venture capital investment happening more consistently in South Florida in the last two years than there was 10 years ago,” says Steven Luis, executive director of technology at Florida International University and a liaison between the university and industry.
Few tech companies in South Florida have attracted more investment than Magic Leap. Founded in 2010, the Plantation-based company raised about $2 billion of capital from 2014 to 2017 from investors including Google and Alibaba. Despite its success in fundraising, Magic Leap laid off some of its employees and replaced its CEO to make a painful pivot from consumer markets to commercial markets for augmented reality products. Under the new CEO, ex-Microsoft executive Peggy Johnson, Magic Leap was preparing at Fort Lauderdale Magazine deadline for the end-of-September introduction of Magic Leap 2, an augmented reality product for commercial use.
Moas says Magic Leap’s enduring presence in South Florida has confirmed the area’s fertility for tech startups. “What that proved was, they were able to recruit people to move here … That was big, because it gave us a taste of whether you could live in South Florida and have a meaningful career in tech here.” Simply starting a tech business is no guarantee of success, of course, but failure threatens any enterprise that ignores technology. “We think the economy is going to become increasingly digitized, that it will become increasingly tied to tech,” he says.
South Florida colleges and universities play a central role in developing local talent. FIU, for example, produces about 700 graduates a year with bachelor’s degrees in computer science and information technology, and most of them start their careers in South Florida. “Easily two-thirds of our students find jobs locally, and it’s been that way for many years,” Luis says.
Luis acknowledges that the leading tech talent centers on the East and West coasts are far ahead, but he expects South Florida to close the gap. “New York and San Francisco have an order of magnitude more than what’s typical, but that’s okay,” he says. “What you have got to do is, start looking at the growth trends – and their growth trends are not anywhere near our growth trends.”