Gainesville Grows Into a Global Hub for Innovation, Talent
Gainesville's unique business and quality of life assets create a breeding ground for innovative businesses with global influence.
Ravi Ahuja started his business in Gainesville out of a desire to take the logistics technology he was developing as an engineering professor at the University of Florida (UF) a step further. Nearly 15 years later, his company, Optym, has grown more than he ever could have imagined, from a handful of doctoral students to a global operation with more than 80 employees and offices in Armenia, Australia and India. Today, the company works with leading railroad, airline, mining, trucking and shipping firms around the world, including Fortune 500 companies like CSX, Southwest Airlines and Wal-Mart, developing planning, scheduling and data analytics software to help them optimize their transportation and logistics operations and save millions in expenses.
Rising demand for Optym's services is fueling rapid growth for the startup, which recently outgrew its headquarters at the Gainesville Technology Entrepreneurship Center. When it came time to consider a move, there was no doubt in Ahuja's mind where to expand.
“Gainesville offers everything we need,” he says. “We can find the people we need in sufficient supply – and with the support we receive from the community, there is no reason to go anywhere else.”
The company announced plans in 2015 to invest more than $4 million to expand its headquarters in Gainesville and create 100 new jobs with average salaries of $80,000 over the next five years.
Incubator for Innovation
Optym's story represents the unique brand of entrepreneurial and knowledge-based industry growth driving investment and job creation across the two-county Gainesville area and putting the region of 265,000 on the map as a global hub of innovation and highly skilled talent. Fueled by the world-class research resources of its top employer, the University of Florida, Gainesville is building expertise in leading-edge fields such as agricultural and life sciences, information technology, advanced manufacturing, logistics and health care. It does business with the world, with exports totaling $300 million in 2013, up more than 60 percent from less than a decade ago. It boasts a strong record of business formation and a competitive business climate with low taxes and regulation barriers.
“Gainesville is a living, breathing incubator of ideas on all fronts,” says Susan Davenport, vice president of economic development for the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce. “Our mission is to be a global hub of talent and opportunity. We are a global city, so we already have what it takes to achieve that.”
The region is culturally diverse, with a slightly higher than average percentage of foreign-born residents and a large international student population attending UF and residing locally through study-abroad programs. Gainesville's workforce also exceeds the norm, with nearly 40 percent of adults holding a college degree. One of the key advantages propelling growth and the fusion of ideas and innovation in Gainesville's economy is the wealth of young, educated talent, drawn from the region's 70,000 college students – more of whom are choosing to stay in the area to work or start companies, Davenport says.
UF ranks fourth among universities in the nation for launching startups, according to the Association of University Technology Managers. Santa Fe College, a major resource for workforce development and entrepreneurial support in Gainesville, landed the prestigious 2015 Aspen Prize for Community College Excellence. Also drawing newcomers and new companies to Gainesville are a mild climate and a quality of life that offers close proximity to beaches on the Gulf Coast and the Atlantic Ocean, along with some of Florida's best trails and parks, a sophisticated arts and culture scene, and eclectic live music and numerous entertainment options.
While people are often surprised by the beauty and vibrancy Gainesville offers for a smaller city, “they are stunned by the innovation coming out of here,” Davenport says. “They have heard of Austin, Silicon Valley and the Research Triangle, but they haven't heard about the nexus of innovation that has quietly been amassing here over the last decade."
Strong Base for Business
For Ahuja, talent, quality of life and affordability are key reasons why Gainesville continues to be the best base for Optym as it expands its reach around the globe. About a fourth of his employees are UF graduates – some former students – and one-half are international residents who find the community as welcoming as Ahuja did when he moved there years ago.
“The community has been so supportive of us,” he says. “Gainesville has been the breeding ground for our growth, and as we become successful, we want to continue to do good things for the city we live in and give back to the community that has given so much to us.”