Draper Lab exec stresses practical role of tech

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Lenpolizzottodraperlab Draper Laboratory, the MIT spinoff expanding to USF in Tampa and to its own building on 16th Street in St. Petersburg, is mostly focused on nanotechnology (super-small) devices for the defense and healthcare industries. So it was notable when Draper senior executive Len Polizzotto -- luncheon speaker before about 100 at a Tuesday gathering of the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership -- talked about something as ancient as coal. (Photo courtesy of Draper Lab.)

Coal, Polizzotto reminded us, fuels about half of all electricity generated in the United States. Replacing coal with nuclear power, he said for sake of emphasis, would require a new nuke power plant every week for 10 years. Wind? Solar? All wonderful, but too intermittent (it's not always windy nor sunny) a source of electricity to be a major replacement for coal.

Crystalriverplant_2 So rather than dismiss coal, the Draper executive said, make it more efficient. Last week, Draper installed a sensor inside the coal-driven power plants at Progress Energy Florida's Crystal River complex in Citrus County. Power plants have not been able to effectively employ sensors to track real-time combustion efficiency of coal, Polizzotto said.  This sensor, he said, so far seems to be working. Big power plants can consume huge volumes of coal so a modest increase in efficiency in burning coal can reap big rewards, he said. Jeff Lyash, CEO of Progress Energy Florida, has been an enthusiastic supporter of Draper's efforts. (Crystal River plant photo by Ricardo Ferro of the St. Petersburg Times.)

Part of Polizzotto's role at Draper is to be the goodwill ambassador in the Tampa Bay market: to both educate the community about what Draper's expertise means and how it can be leveraged to add more high-tech and better paying jobs in the area. The Tampa Bay area wants to use Draper, as well as SRI International (working with USF St. Petersburg) and other similar businesses to create a "cluster" of related industries here.

Polizzotto's a good fit for the job because he is able to communicate Draper's talents in laymen's turns and with humor. On Tuesday, he used his Brooklyn background (he called "futz" a technical term) and his wife's rules of the household as icebreakers throughout his remarks.

"I've never worked in a region where's so much teamwork" and a can-do attitude, said an appreciate Polizzotto. Of course, we're still in the honeymoon phase when Draper is pitching its potential and not yet delivering on its promise.

The St. Petersburg building acquired by Draper is the 40,000-square-foot former Oerlikon building located at 10050 16th Street N. Polizzotto said Draper spent close to $8 million to buy the building, $1 million more in current renovations (to be finished in April) plus $3 million more for initial start-up costs. Half of the building -- 20,000 square feet -- will be a "clean room" for nanotech-related production to meet a demand that outstripped Draper's facility in Cambridge. The St. Pete facility will be able to produce three times what Cambridge can.

Polizzotto also reminded his audience that Draper received a range of incentives to expand in St. Petersburg. They include: $5 million from the state of Florida; $2 million from Pinellas County; $2 million in land from the city of St. Petersburg; $1 million from the Florida High Tech Corridor and $300,000 from Progress Energy.

I sat at a table in the back next to Larry Langebrake, who happens to be the director of SRI International in its St. Petersburg operations. When Polizzotto -- who worked for SRI six years in California -- from the podium thanked Langebrake for assisting in Draper's arrival to the area, Langebrake said "You're welcome, Len," though only our table heard him. Draper and SRI already are talking to each other about potential projects of mutual interest. That's just the way "clusters" should work.

-- Robert Trigaux, Times Business Columnist

[Last modified: Tuesday, June 1, 2010 12:24pm]

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