First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Paul Sohl: Our family has been very blessed with good health during this time. My wife and I have three kids, all of whom have the option to choose a modified approach to their education so they can stay safe while they continue going to school. We appreciate educators, always but especially now, for everything they are doing to protect and teach our children during this challenging time. They are truly serving our nation.
Tell us about you, your career, how you joined Florida High Tech Corridor Council.
Paul Sohl: I like to say that my role as CEO of the Florida High Tech Corridor Council found me. I served for 33 years in the U.S. Navy and loved every minute of it, from flying F-18s and test piloting other aircraft to working on cutting-edge projects that support our warfighters.
During that time, I was stationed in Jacksonville for a few years, so my wife and I already knew we loved Florida. As I was preparing for life after the Navy, I took some time to identify the next step and kept returning to the middle part of Florida – The Corridor region – and the culture of “yes” here that has created an environment that is fertile for new opportunities. I was traveling back and forth to Florida once a month, meeting colleagues and friends across the state to explore potential career paths. It wasn’t long after I started this process that I received a phone call about searching for a CEO to lead the Florida High Tech Corridor Council.
As I learned more about the role, I knew it fulfilled the two criteria driving my search. First, I wanted to give back to my community. Second, I wanted to be immersed in an environment where I would continually learn. With my family on board, I decided to pursue the role, and the rest is history.
How does Florida High Tech Corridor Council aid in the growth of high-tech innovation?
Paul Sohl: The Corridor Council’s mission is to attract, retain, and grow high tech innovation in Florida and the workforce to support it. Currently spanning a 23-county region, our network gives us a unique perspective to “see” more than what’s just right in front of us. Because of our broadened perspective, The Corridor Council is better positioned to break down silos and regional barriers, bringing partners in both industry and academia together and leading unified approaches to economic development that are greater than the sum of their parts. In this role, we’ve grown to serve as a connector and catalyst for high-tech innovation in the region through the resources and programs we offer for entrepreneurs, educators, researchers, corporations, and more.
How has the coronavirus pandemic affected Florida High Tech Corridor Council’s various programs serving The Corridor region? What lessons have you learned?
Paul Sohl: We’ve learned once again that human beings are incredibly adaptable and resilient. As with many CEOs, my first 90 days on the job were centered on conversations in which I listened and learned from our internal teams, community partners, and many others in our ecosystem. Stepping into the role, I had every intention of hitting the road to host these conversations in person. If you told me the entire tour would be conducted virtually, via videoconference, I would’ve said you were crazy. Yet, this format has actually allowed me to cover more ground, meeting more people, and learning more about this region than would have ever been possible if I was working to meet with each individual face-to-face.
The pandemic has also presented new opportunities for the Florida High Tech Corridor Council’s programs to enhance service to the community, making an even greater impact in areas where help was most needed.
Our Matching Grants Research Program (MGRP), which was already successful in connecting local research universities with industry partners for applied research – generating downstream impacts of more than $1 billion since inception in 1996 – became an important source of funding for several COVID-19 related projects, such as a new surface disinfectant spray and other initiatives to develop personal protection equipment and potential COVID-19 therapies. Since laboratories were not shut down amid the pandemic, our region’s innovative researchers charged on during this time, furthering our organizational vision for the future of high tech, as well the health of our regional economy.
In fact, a few technologies backed by MGRP are now being used to reimagine processes in areas such as live event security post-COVID-19. Xonar Technology, a Largo startup that partnered with researchers at the University of South Florida through MGRP, is testing its contactless security technology in venues across Pinellas County as they prepare for the eventual return of live events. The technology uses radar scanners to determine whether a visitor may be carrying a weapon. Using this methodology would allow visitors to enter a venue without stopping at security checkpoints or going through metal detectors at entry, reducing the number of touchpoints and face-to-face interactions that may discourage patrons from visiting due to COVID-19 concerns.
stemCONNECT – our web-based solution for teachers that inspires K-12 students to pursue high tech careers – and its virtual platform were ahead of their time. The program connects classes with STEM industry experts across a variety of disciplines who provide inspiring, real-world context for the lessons students are learning in school. As this program has always been facilitated virtually, our team has been able to continue those efforts despite schools shutting down throughout this year. In fact, their services were in greater demand than ever, as they became a go-to resource for teachers who quickly had to shift their lessons to an online format.
A unique initiative that came about due to COVID-19 was made possible by a partnership between stemCONNECT and the Boy Scouts of America (BSA). When stay-at-home orders prohibited U.S. Boy Scouts from earning their merit badges, BSA reached out to our stemCONNECT team to make it possible for those students to continue the learning process from home. In just one month, stemCONNECT’s live merit badge learning sessions drew more than 60,000 views by scouts throughout North America and beyond – reaching students across the world, as far away as military bases in Asia.
The Florida Virtual Entrepreneur Center (FLVEC), our preeminent business resource and online community for Florida entrepreneurs, has supported its entrepreneurial network throughout this difficult time, providing much-needed resources and expertise as small businesses work to navigate and mitigate operational impacts presented by the pandemic.
For example, the FLVEC team worked with one of its sponsors, the Economic Development Council of St. Lucie County (St. Lucie EDC), to update the EDC’s portal on the FLVEC website, adding a tab exclusive for COVID-19-specific resources for small businesses. This collaboration led to St. Lucie EDC’s portal on the FLVEC website, becoming one of the leading resources for entrepreneurs in that county.
FLVEC also leveraged its pre-existing “Need Funding?” tool, which provides entrepreneurs the opportunity to virtually submit their business funding needs for further discussion with the team. Within the last two months alone, FLVEC fielded more than 30 funding requests from in-state entrepreneurs, as well as those looking for support to relocate to The Corridor region. The website also hosts an “Ask FLVEC Anything” form, inviting entrepreneurs to submit questions about their business for our team of experts to address. FLVEC works to answer each inquiry individually, providing online resources, and connecting each business with relevant community partners, as applicable.
Where do you see yourself and Florida High Tech Corridor Council headed in the future?
Paul Sohl: I strongly believe in operating at the speed of innovation. In this day and age, innovation is rapidly spreading, growing, and evolving, especially in high tech industries. Looking to the future, it’s clear to me that we need to focus on influencing our region’s workforce’s long-term health. While the high tech industry itself already boasts a wealth of opportunities in a variety of sectors, we’re on a mission to further enhance economic diversity throughout our region, supporting companies both big and small – and that work starts now in K-12 education.
We cannot establish a knowledgeable, diversified economy and workforce without first building a passion for the high tech industry in the next generation of professionals. There will be missed opportunities for many students if not exposed to STEM at the right time. For example, some students could miss out on learning about the opportunities available to them through STEM because they sign up for the “wrong” classes in high school or aren’t exposed to it in elementary school. They may have misconceptions of what manufacturing – a field that has moved far beyond the factory assembly line – looks like in the modern age. They don’t know what they don’t know.
High tech industries are primed for new, young talent, but we first need to ensure kids hear and, more importantly, understand the doors a STEM-related degree could open for them. Once they reach the workforce, we know there are resources available to them, like MGRP and FLVEC. But it all starts with building a strong talent pipeline early on in education.
Paul Sohl: There are unparalleled opportunities available in high tech throughout the state of Florida. Our entrepreneurial ecosystem has seen exceptional growth in the last few years, with four times the number of high tech startups as the average U.S. state calling Florida home. In addition, the state has been recognized by Forbes as the No. 2 best state for entrepreneurs, while multiple cities within our 23-county region have been named among Entrepreneur’s “Best Cities for New Small Businesses” and Inc.’s “Best U.S. Cities for Starting a Business.”
And earlier this year, GrowFL, the Florida High Tech Corridor Council, and the Edward Lowe Foundation announced the launch of the American Academy of Entrepreneurs mentorship program for second-stage companies here in Florida, the third state in the nation to offer this exclusive opportunity. Applications are now open for those interested in joining the second cohort of the program, which will begin in January 2021. Many of our other partners across the region, such as Synapse Florida, Embarc Collective, the National Entrepreneur Center, our nationally-ranked university incubators, business accelerators, and many more, also contribute to the booming network of collaborative entities that make Florida such fertile ground for entrepreneurship.
With a vast number and variety of resources available, the Corridor region truly offers innovators of all industries and sizes – from startups and entrepreneurs to industry-leading corporations – the opportunity for explosive growth and lasting impact. We’re proud to represent and support a region that’s brimming with passion, excellence, and innovation that sets the stage for high tech professionals to live, work, play, and thrive.