Brilliance in Brevard
The Space Coast is known for its historic connection to the U.S. Space Program but the brilliance in Brevard is not relegated to technology that makes its way off the earth’s surface.
According to a Brookings Institute Report, the Space Coast is home to the largest share of science, technology, engineering and math-related jobs in Florida. A Milken Institute report found that the Space Coast is also home to the most concentrated high-tech workforce in Florida.
Micah Widen is the CEO of Groundswell Startups, a 501C-3 nonprofit technology startup incubator located in Melbourne. He founded the company in 2015 and has since helped 12 tech startups secure funding and connected more than 50 local companies to each other.
“There are so many great ideas out there, and in this area especially, but there is a gap between what is needed and what is available from an entrepreneurial standpoint,” Widen said.
Widen and his team connect technology entrepreneurs with the resources needed to launch great ideas into successful businesses, from funding to manufacturing contracts to employees. The connections are made through Groundswell’s network.
“Funding is not usually the issue. It’s getting the right people together to launch these ideas,” Widen said.
Groundswell also offers a co-working space that is paid by memberships. Individuals who want an office to work from can rent a spot on a month-to-month basis, and small to medium-sized companies that need office space for their staff members can do the same. The general proximity to each other often leads to some organic connections, too.
“We put on meet-ups and events that are intended to connect people in this community. We need to be more collaborative to have more innovation, and to create opportunities for growth on the Space Coast,” Widen said.
Still a Space Base
Though technology innovation in Brevard runs across industries, space is still a central focus and a large reason companies relocate to the area.
Lynda Weatherman is president & CEO of the Economic Development Commission of Florida's Space Coast and she says Brevard is in a transition period.
The addition of private sector businesses with commercial space pursuits — like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origins — is already bringing more tech talent to the area and that will continue.
“When the shuttle program was retired, it was really a wakeup call here. It was a turning point for industry here, where other places like Detroit stumbled,” Weatherman said.
“We’re stepping up to the challenge of keeping space industry here, though, in new and innovative ways. It’s a fascinating time to work in economic development in this area during this space transition,” Weatherman said.
Manufacturing sees an obvious boost when spacecraft are under construction, but Weatherman says it is really a ripple effect from there.
“We have people employed locally doing research work and other support services for the manufacturing. Then there is the real estate side and more,” Weatherman said.
One task of Weatherman’s EDC is to make sure the workforce exists on the Space Coast to accommodate new businesses and industries. The organization has a workforce development program that is shaped by input from area companies.
“We consistently go out and ask what workers are needed and what skills they need. We have 87 percent placement of the people we train,” Weatherman said.
The Next Generation
Slayde Kerner was just 14 when he founded Brevard-based nonprofit coding and technology school CraftingEducation in early 2016. He came up with the concept of offering accessible courses for kids with science, technology, engineering and a math focus after seeing how expensive adult-run programs ran.
“Things like ‘coding camps’ can cost families upwards of $1,000 and that makes it tough for kids to access programs that can build their STEM skills, particularly in coding,” Susan Sears, Kerner’s mother, said.
The CraftingEducation site recently tripled its space in the Suntree Business Center to accommodate more classes. On the regular schedule are programs like MinecraftEDU, virtual reality, 3D printing and Roblox game programming. The center also has a leadership program for students age 12 to 17 that trains them how to teach technology concepts to their peers. Each year, one student in the leadership academy is awarded a partial college scholarship by CraftingEducation.
“The leaders take on the responsibility to assist in instruction, design programs and contribute to the learning of others. This is a proven methodology in which students learn easier from role models, succeed higher, develop business skills and aspire to become the next entrepreneur,” Kerner, now 17, said.
Dona Gaynor is the director of career management services at Florida Institute of Technology and her office helps current students find local internships and jobs when they graduate.
While she says the job placement focus is not just in Brevard, there are definite advantages to having such a wealth of aeronautic and space companies nearby.
“This is a desirable place for a lot of students to stay once they’ve earned their degrees. We see about 30 percent that stay here after they graduate based on surveys we send out, and that includes students who arrived here from all over the world,” Gaynor said.
FIT’s proximity to the space industry means students can get up close with the companies at the forefront of the industry. Partnerships with Northrop Grumman, Rockwell Collins, Lockheed Martin and Blue Origins are just a few that FIT has forged for its students.
A spring break externship program pairs students with local companies for a week of job shadowing. Mentorship programs, information sessions hosted by local experts and more student-company connections are made possible through FIT.
“We host two career expos each year where students can look for internships, co-ops, full time positive and more. We also plan job readiness events that help with things like resumes,” Gaynor said. “We’re employer friendly, too. If a company wants to set something up with us, we are open to it.”
Check out this article in our DIGITAL MAGAZINE.