To grow Miami’s tech talent, Knight invests $15.3M in FIU, UM, Baptist

By Nancy Dahlberg

The foundation’s grants will help boost computing and data sciences education at both universities and launch a healthcare innovation fellowship program at Baptist Health 

To help take Miami’s entrepreneurial ecosystem to the next level and meet the tech talent needs of the future, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation is making large investments in three of Miami’s cornerstone institutions.

The Knight Foundation announced this morning $15.3 million in commitments to Florida International University, the University of Miami, and Baptist Health South Florida. FIU will receive $10 million to expand what will soon be known as the Knight Foundation School of Computing and Information Sciences. UM will receive $4.3 million to grow its Institute of Data Science and Computing. Baptist Health will receive $1 million to launch a healthcare innovation fellowship program.

The funding news come at a time when Miami has been welcoming a wave of tech investors and founders from tech hubs in California and New York. Larger firms are also moving to the area and opening up tech job opportunities, and South Florida’s homegrown startups are growing up.

They all require a deeper pool of tech talent.

“Miami is emerging as an international tech hub, both through the success of local startups and the recent influx of companies and investors. Demand for technical talent is rising, and we’re just at the beginning of the trajectory,” said Alberto Ibargüen, Knight president and CEO, in a statement. “These investments will assure that there will be a deep pool of talent for Miami’s growing tech sector while creating opportunities for Miamians of all backgrounds.”

Significantly, in all three grants, Knight’s funding is just part of the institutions’ overall funding for the initiatives. Additional capital commitments from donors or the government have already been secured.

“What's really powerful about this is these institutions are of Miami – they are part of the fabric of our city,” said Raul Moas, Knight’s Miami program director, in an interview. “These are places that Miamians know and trust and identify with, and they are taking bold and active roles in our tech and entrepreneurship economy -- that's a huge, huge, huge game changer for our community.”

Florida International University

At FIU, Knight’s investment will help add 20 faculty positions, increasing the faculty of the university’s computer science and engineering school by 64% over the next 10 years. The funding will also help grow the student body – the future talent pool – including with at least 80 new PhD researchers in  fields such as AI and machine learning, health/biomedical technology, sustainability and  clean energy.

Grant dollars will also pay for retrofitting 20,000 square feet of interactive research and teaching space at the newly renamed Knight Foundation School of Computing and Information Sciences that will be part of the 90,000-square-foot College of Engineering and Computing building (pictured in artist's rendering above)  expected to break ground this year. Funding will also go to helping FIU redesign its career advising programs and curriculum to align with the future needs of Miami’s growing tech sector.

Knight’s investment is part of a more than $106 million commitment of new funding by the University to the School of Computing and Information Sciences, including nearly $40 million from the Florida Legislature and $16 million in private contributions, said FIU President Mark Rosenberg, in an interview.

“FIU is about impact and growth. For us, it's never been a question of if, it's a question of what. We're very purpose-driven, and so there's a huge demand for our educational services on one hand, and there's a huge potential on the other. In the context of that, we’ve become a huge cluster of talent,” said Rosenberg, adding that there are 7,500 students in engineering alone. “We don’t want a lighter load, we just want broader shoulders, and Knight is giving us broader shoulders. Amen.”

The statistics shine a light on the opportunity: FIU, the state’s second largest university, awards more engineering and computing degrees to Latino students than any other university in the country, and its No. 6 in degrees awarded to African American students. Of the school’s more than 60,000 students, over 80% are from greater Miami and about 21% of FIU’s computer science and engineering undergraduates are first-generation students.

Rosenberg said the investments over time will give FIU a deeper role in the global economy and the diversification of our economy at home, too long dependent on lower-wage jobs. “The advantage for Miami is that it gives our homegrown talent the opportunity to stay here, and to not have to migrate to get a top 50 public education, and to get a great job. My goal is to keep everybody here if it can,” Rosenberg said.

The university will be announcing the new funding at the site of FIU’s new College of Engineering & Computing building at 10 am today. The event will be livestreamed here.

University of Miami

UM will expand its Institute of Data Science and Computing  by creating six endowed faculty chair positions. These Knight chairs,  as well as a recently launched Master’s of Science in Data Science program, will enable the Institute to better prepare students for careers in data science with real world applications and experiential learning opportunities. The Institute will hosts research programs on key areas, including atmospheric, oceanic and earth science, biological sciences, healthcare, urban planning and smart cities. 

Knight’s investment, together with $2 million of existing Knight endowed funds held by UM, will unlock an additional $6 million in matching funds from local philanthropists Phillip and Patricia Frost, bringing the total endowment to more than $12 million.

Jeffrey Duerk, UM’s executive vice president for academic affairs and provost, believes new academic structures such as the Institute allow UM to be at the front edge of a wave. They provide the opportunity to look across the horizon to what’s coming next, so that the university and the region can capitalize on those new frontiers, such as in AI and data science. Putting computing and domain expertise together is key to creating the talent for what’s ahead.

“I really believe that when you look at intellectual resources, the investments that are coming from the Knight Foundation and from Phillip and Patricia Frost, and those that we’re making and others are making in the region, Miami can capitalize on this next revolution that will be in data science,” Duerk said in an interview. “Miami can be and I think we all believe will be the next great high tech region and we're committed to making that happen.”

He also noted that some 70% of UM’s undergraduate students are not from Florida. “We've solved the first problem -- we've attracted this potentially highly qualified workforce to South Florida. We just need to be stickier; we need more of them to stay.”

Baptist Health South Florida

Baptist Health will launch the Knight Foundation Fellowship in Healthcare Technology Innovation, a year-long, multidisciplinary fellowship bring together individuals from diverse professional backgrounds, such as healthcare professionals, business operators, students and regional entrepreneurs, to develop tech-enabled healthcare products and services and  learn the principles that guide healthcare innovation. The $1 million Knight investment will be matched by external contributors, sustaining the program for about five years,

Mark Coticchia

As the fellows form smaller groups and self-select the problem they want to work on, they will learn about intellectual property protection, opportunity assessment, economic forecasting and the navigation of regulatory and legal restraints. It will be done through team-based experiential learning activities, and a key tenant of the curriculum is that innovation must always be addressed with a multidisciplinary lens, said Mark Coticchia, Baptist’s corporate vice president for innovation who also leads the Baptist Health Innovation Institute. ”We’re really excited that this is the beginning of a large network of diverse talented professionals that will all come out of this program.”

About 30 fellows will be selected annually, and the first group will begin in the fall. About half will come from within Baptist and half from the community at large. Fellowship applications open June 1, 2021. For more info, email InnovationPrograms@BaptistHealth.net.

The latter years of the program will also offer multiple competitions – called innovation challenges -- that will bring economic and advisory support for development of the solutions, said Coticchia, who has been involved in early-stage venture development for 35 years at academic research institutions and health systems. “The reason why I'm a Baptist is because they are really serious about this and are trying to make not only a big impact at Baptist, but a big impact in the community.”

Healthcare technology has been showing strength in South Florida, reaping the most  venture capital dollars of any sector for several years running.  Coticchia thinks Miami has all the right ingredients to be a successful tech-based economic development hub. “You need the right chefs and they need to collaborate, cooperate and coordinate amongst one another … and it's on steroids down here right now. I really think we're about to explode and really accelerate down here. I think it's great.”

Knight’s strategy evolves

To date, Knight has invested more than $55 million to support Miami’s emerging tech entrepreneurship ecosystem since 2012. The strategy began with funding grassroots efforts to grow a base of meetups, convenings and the city’s first co-working space, The LAB Miami, and quickly expanded to larger grants backing organizations focused on  startup growth, such as the Miami Dade College Idea Center for the idea stage, and resources for scaling startups such as bringing Endeavor Miami and 500 Startups to the city. More recently, Knight has focused on efforts to expand the pool of venture investors, through organizations such as Function and Black Angels Miami, and has funded organizations focused on ecosystem inclusion, such as the Center for Black Innovation.

Yet, today’s grants are the first major investments directly related to developing the talent pool. South Florida’s younger companies are growing up, with new needs for talent, and at the same time large employers are moving in or expanding here, such as Blackstone recently announcing it will be creating more than 200 high-paying tech jobs from its Brickell offices. A number of Silicon Valley and New York startups have also relocated recently when the floodgates opened this fall, many of them sparked by Miami Mayor Francis Suarez’s efforts. They are all going to need talent.

The latest investments mark an evolution to supporting institutional partners who can develop technical talent at scale and meet the demands of local industry. That’s what the community has been telling Knight it needs loud and clear, Moas said.

At the same time, Moas wants to make sure that it’s Miami’s graduates who are at the front of the line for many of those jobs. Case in point: FIU's student-run engineering organization, Upsilon Pi Epsilon (UPE), has thousands of members who want to stay and be a part of the innovation economy. This is an investment in the future and the people of Miami, Moas said.

To be sure, these are long-tail investments, not quick fixes, and there’s more work to do, Moas said.

“This is a first pass, from the Knight Foundation perspective, at what a more institutional strategy in Miami might look like focused on tech talent development and pipelines," Moas said. "We know there are several other institutions that are doing great work in this area so we very much are active in other conversations to continue to leverage these kinds of opportunities to bring folks together, rowing in the same direction, but each with their own style, their own focus.”

Follow @ndahlberg on Twitter and email her at ndahlbergbiz@gmail.com 

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