The National Center for Simulation (NCS) hosted its most recent Business-to-Business event, “Space – The Current Frontier,” in Orlando, Florida, on Sept. 13, 2023, which featured a panel that focused on various aspects of Florida’s budding space industry, particularly challenges faced by Central Florida’s modeling and simulation community in partnering and adapting to find its collective place in that new industry.


Dr. Neal Finkelstein, NCS chief operating officer, explained early in the program that the space program has significantly influenced Central Florida’s higher education map for decades. Just a few years after the space program’s establishment, Florida Technical University – which is now the University of Central Florida (UCF) – was founded in 1963 to be the original “Space University.” Finkelstein went on to say that today, approximately 34% of Kennedy Space Center employees are UCF graduates, who are also heavily represented throughout the aerospace and aviation industry as computer scientists and engineers.


“In connecting the space industry to Orlando’s modeling, simulation and training (MS&T) industry, some of the biggest challenges we have is education and workforce because there is so much going on in technology, and so many companies are moving to Florida,” Finkelstein said. “We’re all leveraging the same people, so how we hire and retain people is really important.”


Matt Chesnut, vice president of business and economic development for Space Florida, moderated a panel that consisted of: Dr. Kent Halverson, principal scientist & senior director for Aptima, Inc.; Lynn Hansen, director of career services at the University of Central Florida; Dr. Teresa Pace, technical fellow at L3Harris and IEEE; and Johnathen Warren, general manager/co-founder at Critical Frequency Design.


Hansen addressed UCF’s role in the professional pipeline for students who aspire to work in space-related, or other fields, and how the university can assist businesses seeking people with relevant skills and degrees in other disciplines.


“We can help smaller or mid-sized companies navigate the huge machine that is UCF, or any other institutions you’re working with… [because] in certain ways we work very closely with colleges and universities across our state and across the country,” Hansen said. “Students know what Lockheed Martin does, but they may not know what a smaller organization does. We can offer several different ways you can get involved and have contact with students, and that’s particularly important of you don’t have the name recognition.”


Chesnut later asked Halverson about barriers to entry smaller companies may face, especially when government decision-makers may be inclined to award contracts to bigger, more established firms.


“The SBIR program is probably one of the fairest ways of getting your foot in the door,” Halverson said. “You don’t know who your customer is and everybody has to submit the same way, so it’s a pretty fair process. [However,] you can’t be naïve and think that it’s a completely fair process because somebody always has a little more information.”


Halverson also noted that the process of applying for government contracts represents another barrier to entry due to “the huge, complex engine” of government rules and regulations. This can be especially difficult for small business owners who don’t have a military background or don’t understand the military acquisition process.


Pace recommended different tips to get engaged with government entities and bigger companies. The first was to educate oneself to understand what established businesses do, particularly if smaller firms hope to partner with them. Her second tip was to network at a variety of professional gatherings, including – but not limited to – modeling and simulation conferences. Pace’s final recommendation was to reach out to senior people, such as fellows, at larger companies.


Near the end of the session, Warren addressed cybersecurity threats and the added challenges smaller firms face because they don’t always have the resources of bigger companies.


“The way most foreign countries infiltrate isn’t through the big businesses, it’s through the small businesses,” Warren said. “[Adversaries] understand they’re the most vulnerable, and it’s not just from [a national security standpoint]. Imagine losing your intellectual property and competitive edge that goes to someone else… or not being able to meet your employees’ payroll.”


Despite the challenges that MS&T businesses, big and small, will have to face as Florida’s space industry continues to evolve, Finkelstein expressed optimism regarding new opportunities in the future.


“We work very closely with the Space Coast, and now that the Space Force is moving more assets for training and readiness to the Space Coast, we know that companies who are doing modeling, simulation and training can help government agencies with their work,” Finkelstein said. “We’re excited about building a better bridge between the Central Florida Research Park and the Space Coast.”


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