Meet Jack Henkel: Expert Cluster Manager Helping Innovative Companies in Central Florida

October 31 | insights

Between 2019 and 2022, in Orange County alone, game and mobile app developers and companies exploring innovation in entertainment and XR/AR/VR earned an estimated $5.5 billion in revenue. Events like MetaCenter Global Week are propelling a growing number of companies even further into the national spotlight, generating momentum that will inevitably accelerate continued industry growth. Additionally, throughout the region, thousands of companies that are on the cutting edge of educational technology, mental health, sports performance, organizational development and cognitive science employ tens of thousands of workers.  As more innovative companies in these industry clusters start and scale here, the need for business services and support will also increase.

The good news is these new entrepreneurs and growing companies don’t have to navigate the ecosystem’s resources alone. The Corridor’s Senior Cluster Manager, Jack Henkel, works to make sure they are connected to the right resources that facilitate their growth. The gamer, beach lover and football fan leverages 15 years of economic development experience to be the “eyes and ears” for the small- and medium-sized businesses he supports, ensuring they have access to the best resources while encouraging collaboration between companies who are breaking new ground. Along with leading the Gaming, Entertainment + eSports and Learning Science & Human Performance clusters for The Corridor’s Cenfluence program, Henkel is also one of The Corridor’s resident experts on Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Tech Transfer (SBIR/STTR) funding.

We asked Henkel to share his perspective on our innovation ecosystem and how companies in gaming and other related sectors can best connect with The Corridor and its programs:

What is ecosystem building?

It’s a mix of directly helping technology entrepreneurs grow their businesses and building relationships with the other support organizations in the region so that we know what exists and can match companies with the best resources to support their growth. To put it another way – how we use our knowledge, expertise and reach to be the “eyes and ears” for entrepreneurs in our region so they have the best access to the right resources for them.

What is the most surprising thing you’ve learned about our regional innovation ecosystem?

It’s easy to think of theme parks when you think of Orlando and that’s what most people, including me, thought about before really getting engaged in the innovation ecosystem. The truth is that there is so much more to it and a really diverse range of technologies, founders and opportunities. This is one reason for creating Cenfluence – to support emerging sectors in the region that are becoming more established. Our region is one of the largest sources of video game development talent in the country, which means there’s an incredible opportunity to grow the number of businesses creating and serving the gaming, entertainment and immersive technology industries, and we find the best ways to support that talent and those businesses, so they start and grow here.

What has been your proudest professional moment since joining The Corridor team?

Leading the effort to bring the FL FAST (Federal & State Technology Partnership) program here, funded by the U.S. Small Business Administration. The goal of FL FAST is to create resources and build capacity of companies in the state to win SBIR/STTR funding for new research and development. Funding R&D is critical in all industries, but for the Gaming, Entertainment and eSports cluster, I want to leverage FL FAST to help companies developing immersive and engaging technologies (whether it’s AR, VR, haptics, etc.) push those boundaries with funding to develop new solutions and find ways to bring those solutions to other industries.

If you could have dinner with anyone in our regional innovation ecosystem, who would it be? Why?

I think I would make this more of a dinner party. It would be great to get the people involved with innovation and strategic initiatives in the larger organizations around the region together to explore what’s possible in the gaming and entertainment technology space. It would be great to have theme park and gaming company executives at the same dinner table with hospital systems and utilities to figure out how we can work together to drive some new innovations and cross-cluster collaborations.

Of all the events available to attend in our ecosystem each year, which is your favorite? Why?

The Indienomicon Game Jam series are great events where you can really see the creativity and talent of the region. I may be a little partial since I helped organize some of the early game jams almost 10 years ago; seeing that these events bring in over 100 people to dedicate a weekend so they can build new games show how important these types of convening events are to an ecosystem. It’s always incredible to see what people can build in just 48 hours.

In your role, what questions are you most frequently asked?

How can I get funding for my company?
This is often the first question from entrepreneurs in any of our clusters. The answer depends on the goals of the individual company and what stage they are at on their business and technology development. Our needs assessments help give us a better idea on how we can help each specific company. In a lot of cases, we can talk about some options that companies may not have thought about or have much experience with (pitch competition and grant funding for example), but could be great options.

Does “Gaming, Entertainment and eSports” just refer to theme parks and EA?
My response here is “Yes and”… while those companies play an important role in the ecosystem, there is so much other activity happening in this cluster that it’s hard to keep track of. I think people are recognizing this more and more, and will continue to do so as the companies grow.

When you aren’t working, where are we most likely to find you?

I grew up in Jacksonville following football and basketball. I had season tickets to the Jacksonville Jaguars for a few years before going to college. Now, I have season tickets again, so a couple Sundays a year, I’ll try to make it to Jacksonville for a game. I also go to Orlando Magic games whenever I get a chance.