Kids Are Building Robots in Jacksonville FL | SBDC UNF

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Kids Are Building Robots in Jacksonville FL

We had the pleasure of sitting down with Mark McCombs, Executive Director of Renaissance Jax, recently and wanted to hear more about the close to 50 FIRST lego robotics teams that he is overlooking on the First Coast.

Tell us a little about your program
Renaissance Jax is a nonprofit dedicated to providing resources to FIRST robotics teams. Our goal is to build Jacksonville’s cognitive capital by helping to grow close to 300 competitive (and sustainable!) robot teams in the next 5-7 years which would have potentially over 6500 student participants per year. We want to get local and regional businesses to sponsor the robotics teams directly, mentor the students, and take stock in our region by creating the workforce that has the potential to attract engineering, design, manufacturing, and other firms that before might not have considered our city as a reasonable site for relocation of their business.
What makes your program so enticing to the students?
If you didn’t already know, kids LOVE robots. Machines that move and perform tasks are so exciting, and building them to compete with other machines is even more so. FIRST is a 25 year old program that has close to 400,000 participants annually, and the competitions are insane whether it is at the local, state, or world level. Put 10 kids on a FIRST Lego League (age 9-14)  team, give them a research project topic and tell them to make a skit that covers a creative solution to that problem, and they will blow you away at how cool their solution will be. The kids are solving real world problems that are new each year, and learning that hard work and learning to use their brains is more fun than they could have ever imagined. The high school students get to travel all over the state and country for competition, and get to build machines that are as large as 5ft tall and 120lbs. The competitions are set up like a professional sports event and its truly a spectacle. Spiked, colored hair, thumping music from the PA, outta-control announcers, and even at a regional event, up to 75 teams decked out in custom team apparel trying to make a massive machine do really complicated stuff. Did I mention $20 Million dollars in available scholarship money offered through FIRST???
What are your plans for the upcoming One Spark event?
Renaissance Jax is going to showcase the different levels of FIRST to the general public and let people know about the huge momentum that our region has gained over the last 3 years in terms of team and event growth. I want to get 50-100 people at least signed up for summer training workshops, and will be seeking sponsorships for rookie and returning team grants that I hope to offer this fall. We got a huge response last year and it was a ton of fun letting people know what we are up to. One Spark launched our name into the minds of thousands of people and this year we are going to tell them about all the progress that we’ve made.
Who do you look to for inspiration in your business endeavors?
The man who started FIRST is named Dean Kamen. If you don’t already know who he is – Google him. He started FIRST with the idea that if we as a country can get kids to focus on things like designing, building, and programming as opposed to passing, dribbling, and shooting, then we as a society can have a much better future. There are countless examples of students who have come through the program and proven him right. There are tons of companies who give preference to students who come through FIRST because they know what it can do for a young mind. Dean Kamen has over 440 patents, but his greatest gift to mankind, he believes, is FIRST because of what it can do for millions of people.
Elon Musk is also one of my great inspirations. He is truly the real life equivalent of Tony Stark from Iron Man. My original goal upon graduation was to go work for one of his companies, SpaceX. It became clear that I would have at least had a really good shot at being able to move to California and build rockets and aid in the coolest privately funded outer space firm in human history, but if I went – who else would follow from Jacksonville. I believe that what Renaissance Jax means for Jacksonville is that more companies like SpaceX, Tesla, Solar City, and others will be able to come to fruition as a result of having many thousands of highly skilled, capable, and motivated individuals as a result of FIRST.
Jacksonville’s resources are ripe for a quantum shift over the next few years regarding the amount of high-tech manufacturing and engineering that could happen here. Every company I talk to about these programs echoes the same sentiment that there are not enough skilled individuals out there to fill their current needs let alone help them push new ideas onto the books. I look to people like Dean Kamen and Elon Musk for trends in what they are working on, using that as inspiration to build the workforce that can make their dreams and others come to life here in North Florida.
If someone is interested in helping or hearing more about what you are doing, how can they keep in touch?
COME TO ONE SPARK!!!!! We will be in Hemming Plaza for the festival. You can also check out our website renaissancejax.orgor send an email to
Mark McCombs
President and Founder 
Renaissance Jax Inc. 

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