When the Glen L. Martin Company of Baltimore got the contract to build the Lacrosse Missile and decided to locate its manufacturing facility on Sand Lake Road, south of Orlando and west of Patrick Air Force Base in 1957, little did it know it was setting in motion a chain of events which would ultimately result in the development of a sophisticated laser industry in Central Florida, a robust laser and optics educational cluster at UCF, and years later, a cutting-edge technology for the navigation of autonomous driving vehicles.
The story is just one of many of this genre, but it does put a face on how decades of growing from within — coined as “economic gardening” — can pay off handsomely for a region.
When the Martin Company went on to obtain the Pershing missile contract, it took the initiative to supplement its expertise in transmitters, receivers, antennas, power supplies, and radar systems — World War II technologies — with a newly developed technology called “lasers.” To understand those lasers better, the company hired an out-of-state young engineer by the name of William (Bill) Schwartz.
After a number of years at Martin, Schwartz started his own company, ILS Industrial Laser Systems, which spawned an entire generation of engineers focused on optics and lasers, increasing the footprint for laser technology in the region even further.
Looking to expand his own company with local talent, Schwartz pushed for an optics engineering graduate program at what was then Florida Technological University (FTU), later morphing into UCF’s Center for Research and Education in Optics and Lasers (CREOL). One of those CREOL graduates was Jason Eichenholz, who, along with his partner, Scott Faris, formed Open Photonics, a 1990s Florida startup that accelerated commercialization of photonics technologies for client companies.
With one of his Open Photonics clients, Eichenholtz helped develop a new technology that attracted a $6 million investment and led to the establishment of Luminar Technologies. Luminar now employs some 350 people at the UCF Research Park. Customers include companies working on self-driving cars, such as Toyota and Volvo.
The quick glimpse at the Luminar story is not about Luminar, of course. It is a story about how economic development fosters economic prosperity. It operates as a case study for the playbook we have the opportunity to follow in order to create jobs, increase our average income and improve the standard of living for our entire community.
That playbook is clear. First, recruit, grow and invest in talented individuals rather than companies. They not only produce, but they multiply by duplicating themselves.
Second, focus on industry clusters. Optics and lasers is just one of them. We now have over 150 laser companies based in Central Florida employing highly skilled high-income scientists and professionals. With over 400 companies nationwide focused on autonomous driving, another cluster is emerging in what is sure to be the future of automotive and truck navigation. Simulation and training, space science, and life sciences are three others.
Third, mobilize education to support those industry clusters. The knowledge trade produces the highest standards of living in today’s economy and that requires focused and progressive efforts on the part of universities as reflected by what is now UCF’s CREOL and the National Center for Simulation and Training.
Growing from within — economic gardening — is the best social welfare program any of us can envision. It allows our community to become upwardly mobile as we embrace today the life we choose to live tomorrow.
Image source: www.yesfloydva.org/