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Valuable Partnership:
UCF alumni, scientists, and now entrepreneurs turn to UCF Technology Incubator

Pegasus Magazine Jan/Feb 2004

[picture caption] NanoSpective’s creators all hold multiple degrees from UCF. Brenda Prenitzer received a B.S. in chemistry in 1995 and a Ph.D. in materials science and engineering in 1999; Jennifer McKinley earned a B.S. in chemistry in 1994 and a M.S. in materials science and engineering in 1996; Brian Kempshall earned a B.S. in mechanical engineering in 1997 and a Ph.D.in materials science and engineering in 2001; and Steve Schwarz secured a B.S. in electrical engineering in 1986, a B.S. in mechanical engineering in 1997 and a Ph.D. in materials science and engineering in 2002.

Materials scientists and UCF alumnae Brenda Prenitzer, ’95, and Jennifer McKinley, ’94, were informed that their lab at Agere Systems was closing, effective October 2002. Because of their strong roots in central Florida, they were unhappy about the prospect of relocating to find work and the idea to start a company came into play. With this in mind, Prenitzer gathered the people she thought would be most valuable to this new venture and McKinley, Brian Kempshall, ’97, and Stephen Schwarz, ’86, were brought on board.

NanoSpective was formed to use cutting edge technology and state-of-the-art equipment to perform nanoscale and macroscopic property evaluation of materials for clients in various markets including semiconductor, opto-electronic, defense and legal. Their services are of particular interest in patent infringement cases where the area of concern is so small that advanced materials characterization is necessary. With funding from their first client, NanoSpective incorporated in January 2003, immediately providing materials characterization services to three clients. NanoSpective’s executives attribute their instant client base to their known excellence in the scientific and university communities with analytical instrumentation. “We’re very proud that we were able to start our company with very little debt; a lot of young companies aren’t so lucky,” says McKinley, vice president and CFO of NanoSpective.


Paying millions of dollars to purchase the proper equipment was simply not an option for NanoSpective during its start-up phase. Prenitzer had mentioned their situation to MJ Soileau, vice president of research for UCF, and he immediately encouraged them to look into the UCF Technology Incubator. A relationship was established between NanoSpective and UCF, securing access to the incubator program and UCF’s Materials Characterization Lab, where NanoSpective began work for its clients. Taking advantage of the incubator program was an important and logical step for NanoSpective. With the laboratory and office space leased, the company could take advantage of having a respectable and professional appearance, with an attractive location in close proximity to UCF researchers and facilities. Prenitzer credits the incubator with helping to facilitate relationships with the university and the community in addition to strong networks and strategic partnerships. “When we started NanoSpective, we were scientists, not business people,” says Prenitzer, president and CEO of NanoSpective. “The incubator has helped us enhance our skills and educate us on the business subjects outside our realm of expertise or experience.”

Growing New Companies; Growing Orlando: The UCF Technology Incubator is playing a big part in Central Florida's High Tech Boom
FirstMonday July 2004
By Tracey Velt

With his Ph.D. grasped firmly in one hand and a government contract securely in the other, Dan Rini needed to act fast. “As part of my studies, I wrote some proposals to the Department of Defense about a laser cooling technology that I developed,” says Rini, President of Rini Technologies in Orlando. “The government liked what they saw, gave me a contract and was sending two representatives down from the federal government’s missile defense agency to take a look at my facility.”  

The problem: Rini’s facility was “my backpack and an old car.”

Enter the University of Central Florida’s Technology Incubator, which provides early-stage technology companies with the business help they need to get off the ground.

“Presto, within days I had a shiny new office building with a conference room and a secretary,” says Rini. “Without the help of the Incubator, I would have had to scramble to find office space.”

What is the UCF Tech Incubator? 

Offering far more than help leasing office space, the UCF Technology Incubator gives emerging tech companies a helping hand with incorporating, hiring management, gaining access to equipment and laboratories, procuring seed and expansion capital, and finding mentors and business guidance from community professionals, such as attorneys and accountants. 

The Incubator is a collaborative economic development partnership created to establish financially stable, rapidly growing technology companies in the community that will in turn create more high-wage jobs and diversify the local economy. Funded by grants, strategic partnerships with UCF, Orange County, the City of Orlando and the Florida High Tech Corridor, the nonprofit Incubator offers much-needed help to fledgling companies.

“Most of the people we have coming through the Incubator are scientists and researchers,” says Carol Ann Dykes, Chief Operating Officer of the Incubator, based in Orlando’s Research Park. “They’re highly intelligent but haven’t had any business training. The Incubator gives them that training.”

Tom O’Neal, Chief Executive Officer of the Incubator, spotted the need in 1999. “I was overseeing sponsored research at UCF’s Center for Research and Education in Optics and Lasers (CREOL). I found myself helping several faculty members start companies and realized they needed a place to do business — to learn about business. An Incubator could help UCF, the community and small businesses.”

After obtaining a small amount of seed funding, O’Neal leveraged it several times over to get matching funds. Then, in October 1999, he was finally able to open the doors to his own office building.

Today, the Incubator occupies more than 62,000 square feet in four different buildings in Central Florida Research Park, with additional offices in downtown Orlando and in the Sanford Technology Business Incubator Center. Since it was founded, the Incubator has supported 70 client companies and eight graduating companies, who together have created more than 400 new jobs, and generated more than $140 million in revenue for the local economy.

As further proof that the Incubator is a force to be reckoned with, the National Business Incubator Association (NBIA) recently named it the 2004 Technology Incubator of the Year.

“The team at the UCF Technology Incubator has demonstrated exceptional leadership in creating an entrepreneurial culture and high-tech industry base in Central Florida,” says NBIA President and CEO Dinah Adkins. “They’ve built strong partnerships in the community that provide an incredible network of business development resources for their client companies that are second to none.”

Non-Tech Companies Need Not Apply

To be eligible to participate in the Incubator program, applicants must have a technology-oriented company that plans to remain in Central Florida. But, it all starts with an application. Anyone interested in the Tech Incubator program can download an application off the Web site (www.Incubator.ucf.edu). From there, applicants meet with Incubator management to get more information.

“We work mainly with tech companies, such as optics, photonics, computer-related companies, computer science and simulation,” says O’Neal. “We require all applicants to go through our seven-week Incubator Excellence in Entrepreneurship course. This helps

us flush out the idea to make sure it’s a viable business opportunity. We can tell if the product or service has a market in Central Florida and if it is saleable and potentially profitable.”

The Incubator doesn’t accept everyone, and so the seven-week course is self-filtering. “We want viable companies that can create lots of jobs in the Central Florida  ommunity,” adds O’Neal. “Our goal is to help tech companies that can give back to the community that is so vital to our existence.”

A Perfect Match

After the company that Brenda Prentizer was working with started laying off people in her department, she and three others decided they had a service they could market on their own, so they went to the Incubator.

“We had four skilled scientists with strong connections to UCF [all were UCF graduate alumni] who were ready to offer a much-needed service, but we had no business background,” says Prentizer, one of four principals and President/CEO of NanoSpective, a company that specializes in materials characterization. “The seven week course helped us hone our business skills and get our company off the ground.”

NanoSpective offers materials characterization to companies that do research and development to see if their ideas are working. The company offers a unique skill set in that it looks at materials on the atomic scale. “We can help a company that is in manufacturing by incorporating failure analysis,” explains Prentizer. “We can also help with intellectual property, patent infringement cases and patent assertion.”

The entrepreneurial course helped NanoSpective incorporate and took it through the steps needed to make the company marketable. The company was connected with an attorney and guided by the Central Florida Innovation Corp. 

The Incubator also hooked Prenitzer and her partners up with an accountant. “We rented office space, learned how to market our services and were able to establish ourselves in the community,” she says gratefully.

Bringing People Together

Not only does the Incubator help former UCF students, but it also helps any qualifying tech company. Consider the case of Dr. Leonid B. Glebov. Glebov is a Russian scientist who came to Central Florida when the cold war ended. He ran the Russian Institute of Optics and developed a way to split beams of light into different wavelengths.

“It’s been a great, fun project,” says Dykes. “Last year, we were able to help him hire a chief financial officer and some management. We also helped with some grant proposals that got him millions of dollars to get started.”

The story doesn’t end there. Another scientist named Dr. Jean-Luc Nogues came to the Incubator wanting to start a new optics company. He and Dr. Glebov met and quickly realized the great potential of working together, so they ended up partnering, starting a new company called OptiGrate, and using the Incubator to help get incorporated. Dr. Glebov is the Chief Technology Officer and Dr. Nogues is President and CEO.

OptiGrate, formerly Light Processing and Technologies, develops and fabricates robust high-efficiency volume diffractive gratings for optical beam control in high-power laser systems, optical communications and processing. Dr. Glebov, who co-authored the first publication on the discovery of the photo-thermo-refractive phenomenon in a doped silicate glass, first developed this technology about 25 years ago.

A Community Win-Win

The UCF Tech Incubator is in the unique position to help the community. “We’ve integrated the Incubator into the bigger picture in order to become an integral part of the community,” says O’Neal. “The Incubator is a tool for the entire region.” 

Through partnerships with Orange County, the City of Orlando and the Florida High Tech Corridor, the Incubator raises the visibility of the importance of supporting the technology sector of the local economy. 

According to Dykes, “Everyone recognizes that Orlando benefits from the tourism, retail and service sectors of our economy, but they may not realize the challenges and rewards of a strong technology sector.” 

The Incubator brings tech business to Central Florida. Their close working relationship with the Metro Orlando Economic Development Commission offers its principals the opportunity to interact with companies considering relocating or expanding to Orlando. Sometimes these companies want to start with a small operation, and the Incubator may be a perfect avenue for that.

In addition, the Incubator works with the UCF Technology Transfer program to assist in the actual formation of new companies to commercialize innovations coming out of the university’s research. “About 20 percent of our companies today are faculty-led or are licensees of UCF technology,” explains Dykes. O’Neal believes it’s all about the partnerships. “We couldn’t provide any type of service without volunteers coming in to mentor,” he says. “We have attorneys and accountants, business trainers and marketing companies supporting the innovative people who come to the Incubator. These professionals donate time, and eventually go on to develop paying relationships with these companies.”

Proof of Success

To date, the Incubator has graduated eight companies. That means the companies have achieved a level of corporate and financial growth and are ready to be on their own in the community. In fact, one of the companies was recently acquired by a large multinational corporation.

One of these success stories is Rini Technologies, which currently employs 14 full-time and five part-time staff. “Although we’ve been profitable since the beginning, our revenues have tripled three of the past four years,” says Rini. “This year, we’ll have revenues of more than $2 million.”

That type of success is why the Incubator is so important. Not only did Rini find the tools he needed to get his company off the ground, but also his company is now a force in Central Florida, hiring employees and bringing tech-related revenue to the area.

“It’s one big circle,” says O’Neal. “We help these companies get started, and then they generate income for Central Florida, give local people jobs and help lure other high-tech companies to the area.”

And, that, adds Dykes, is the ideal community partnership.