Florida incubator manager: How Volusia small biz ecosystem evolved from retail to drones – The Business Journals

Connie Garzon comes from Bogotá, Colombia, a city of 8 million people, so when she and her family moved to Volusia County more than a decade ago, she had an immediate question.
“Here, I was like, ‘Where are the big buildings?’ ”
Volusia County is far removed from the Latin American capital city Garzon grew up in, as well as the multimillion-dollar businesses she worked with in Mexico. Nevertheless, Garzon threw herself into working with small businesses in the Central Florida county.
She worked at the Small Business Development Center at Daytona State College from 2008-2011 before joining the University of Central Florida Volusia County Incubator in Daytona Beach, where she has served as site manager since it opened in 2011.
In that time, Garzon has seen a maturation in the county’s entrepreneurial sector, driven by the talent and technologies that come out of the area’s universities and helped by the incubator, she told Orlando Inno. Small businesses continue to pop up at a rapid pace in the county, which saw a 25% year-over-year increase in new business formation in 2020 and a 24% increase in 2021, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Here, Garzon shares more about the transformation she has witnessed in Volusia County’s startup ecosystem:
When you started at the SBDC, what was the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Volusia County like? It was fairly small. We were helping mostly restaurants, companies that needed loans. I was helping a lot of the Latino community with their businesses. During the recession, I was helping restaurants, bakers and small businesses get loans. 
What were your thoughts when you heard a UCF incubator was headed to the county? When I was at the SBDC, if I had a company that had a patent or grant it needed, I used to refer those clients to incubators in Orlando. One day, I was sitting with my boss and he said, “Connie, UCF is going to open an incubator here.” Then he said, “It’s going to be a tech incubator.” We were like, “A tech incubator in Volusia? Good luck with that.” I said, just joking, “I’m going to apply.” People said you’re never going to get that position, this is political. I applied. In 2011 when they opened, I was working there.
What were the early days like? We did lots of research on how to build a tech incubator. I attend conferences and kept asking questions of everybody. Everybody kept telling me to do an inventory of the community. Then I read the book “Startup Communities.” I learned how other cities have done it. I learned how Silicon Valley became Silicon Valley. Then I realized that’s what I needed to do; I needed to educate people here. Meanwhile, the first three years we had a wave of mom-and-pop businesses, but they weren’t the ones we wanted. There was amazing board member, James Cairns, he was a mentor back in 2012-2013. He said to start building an entrepreneurial ecosystem with students in the area, and he said, “I’m going to give you $10,000 to award students coming out of universities with technology.” That’s how we started the Innovation Challenge.
Did the entrepreneurial ecosystem improve? By 2016, it was an amazing culture of innovation, collaboration and communication. Everybody started opening their doors to us. We told them we’re here to help. We started seeing more technologies from the classroom, more competitions. In 2017, there was the opening of the MicaPlex [incubator and innovation space at Embry Riddle Aeronautical University]. A lot of students came out with ideas. I’m seeing those companies that believed in the incubation process and stuck with us now being successful and growing.
What are the types of businesses the Volusia County Incubator hosts now? The economic driver back in 2011-2012 was retail, construction, professional services and health care. I was telling everybody from the Volusia County Council that if we want to change this, we have to have the attention of the sectors that drive venture capital. We have universities focused on high technology. How can we make the students stay? We have to create more industry for the students to work in. One task I have with UCF is to try to bring soft-landing companies to the area. We have a good case study: TechFit. They’re a biomedical device manufacturer in Colombia [that expanded to Daytona Beach]. Cairns gave us money for a maker lab. After we opened the maker lab, we started attracting rocket scientists from Embry Riddle.
What are the needs for early-stage firms in the county? The big need right now, as always, is access to capital and more investors who believe in startups. That’s a common denominator in cities across the U.S. Not many investors want to invest in companies in the idea stage. The Volusia Council County and EDC have been phenomenal. They’ve always invested in the startup ecosystem, and now they’re talking about maybe starting a fund for startups. We have to continue with the education. This is where universities play a big role. 
site manager, Volusia County Incubator
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