Orlando is gearing up to become a rival to Silicon Valley — and shift away from being a destination primarily for tourists and retirees

By Grace Dean

Defense and technology startup Red 6 is opening a hub in Orlando to develop its airborne tactical augmented reality system.

It's one in a long line of companies, including Lockheed Martin, Oracle, Verizon, and Deloitte, with offices in the central Florida city.

For years, people have viewed the Sunshine State as primarily a vacation and a retiree destination, but groups such as the Orlando Economic Partnership have been working to elevate its profile as a tech hub.

"In Orlando, everyone knows the Disney story," Tim Giuliani, the Partnership's president, told Insider. "This part of the story that people don't know or don't recall is the space race."

NASA started performing launch operations in Cape Canaveral more than 70 years ago. The city is also home to the Kennedy Space Center and US Army, Air Force, and Navy simulation command centers, which has led to an influx of other technology, defense, and training companies.

"You have this cluster here, that's developed over a long time, and now you're seeing it get to a critical mass," Giuliani said. "You're seeing more companies moving out of California and New York."

"We've made great strides in growing our reputation as a city where tech companies and start-ups can not only open, expand, relocate, and thrive, but be in proximity to some of the world's leaders in innovation," Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer added.

Orlando has talent, transport, and low taxes

Execs from Electronic Arts, Luminar, and Stax told Insider that Orlando's big talent pool made it easier for them to recruit in the area.

"We have all these great colleges that are literally in our backyard," Suneera Madhani, founder of Orlando-based SME payments platform Stax, said. These include the University of Central Florida, the University of Florida, and Valancia College.

Giuliani said there were half a million college students within a hundred-mile radius of downtown Orlando.

"We have been able to tap into that talent," Luminar CTO Jason Eichenholz said. The self-driving LIDAR startup has around 400 employees, with roughly 60% based in Orlando.

"In the early days of Luminar, when we would meet with a potential customer and they'd have one specific LIDAR engineer, we would have a millennia of men and women, experienced in LIDAR technology, which gave us a very unfair advantage compared to our competition," Eichenholz added.

The execs said it was easy to recruit workers from other states to move to Orlando, too.

Electronic Arts vice-president Daryl Holt said its Orlando studios had more than 850 employees – some from the area, including many UCF graduates, and some who relocated.

Migration to the state has boomed because of its warm climate, low living costs, and lack of income tax.

"Who wouldn't want to move to Florida?" Mahdani said. Many of Stax's C-suites and middle management relocated from New York, California, and Atlanta, he added.

Eichenholz said some young tech workers relocated to California to work for companies like Google, Apple, and Facebook, but that once they had a family, "we do exceptionally well in being able to attract them back to Florida."

The execs said Orlando had a pro-business environment and bustling tech community. Madhani, for example, sits on the board of Starter Studio, a venture-tech accelerator that helped her set up Stax in 2014.

"It's a wonderful nexus point of industry, education, and government all rowing in the same direction," Holt said.

Giuliani said Orlando is a well-connected city. As well as an international airport, Brightline is due to launch a rail line connecting Orlando to Miami, Fort Lauderdale, and West Palm Beach in 2022.

"Obviously Silicon Valley is not going to die and New York's not going to die," Giuliani said. "There's just going to be more for everybody else."