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Bay area attracts new lab with incentives

State and local officials pledged millions to lure SRI International to St. Petersburg two years ago, predicting more high-tech heavyweights would follow.

Round 2 now seems to be unfolding.

The state of Florida and local governments on both sides of Tampa Bay are budgeting a total of $30-million to woo a Massachusetts firm that makes tiny machines for biomedical and defense products.

Under the proposed deal, Charles Stark Draper Laboratories of Cambridge would open satellite offices in St. Petersburg and at the University of South Florida in Tampa, creating at least 165 high-paying jobs plus $50-million in new research grants for the university.

Draper focused on this area because of connections to SRI, St. Petersburg officials said. Among other things, Len Polizzotto, a senior Draper executive, was an SRI vice president when that company negotiated economic development incentives from the city and state.

"Some of these folks we are working with we have been working with since the beginning of the SRI deal," Mayor Rick Baker said Wednesday.

"The nice thing about these kinds of companies isn't just the jobs they design for research. They tend to develop technologies and make them into marketable products that can launch other companies.

"That's the idea behind SRI, and that's the idea behind this," Baker said.

The $30-million, which will be paid out over several years, is a joint effort. Draper would receive the money after proving certain milestones in job creation.

Half came from Florida's Innovation Incentive Fund, somewhat of a coup because it was the last unpledged money in this year's fund, city and county officials said. The Legislature put no new money into the fund for next year.

Fund rules require matching grants from local governments. Those include $6-million approved Wednesday by the Hills­borough County Commission, $2-million tentatively approved by the Pinellas County Commission and $4-million from the USF Research Foundation in the form of equipment and free lease of a 20,000-square-foot lab at the university.

St. Petersburg voted in June to put up $2-million in city land if Draper expands from research and development into manufacturing.

George Gordon, chairman of the Tampa Bay Technology Forum, said cooperation on Draper should help unite a region that sometimes squabbles over plum projects.

"A rising tide floats all boats," Gordon said. "The more companies like that grow, the more seedlings they drop and the tech industry here can grow even more."

Tampa Bay politicians studiously avoided mentioning Draper by name, even though a company spokeswoman confirmed its role. State law provides confidentiality to the company during negotiations.

Also, each government will have one more chance to approve the deal after final details are arranged.

After the St. Petersburg Times reported the deal Wednesday, public officials were glad to speak of "the company" as if it were a done deal.

"This is a particularly important project at a time when we've seen a lot of downturn (in the economy)," USF president Judy Genshaft said. "This is a huge upturn."

Though Draper is still considering expansion sites in other states, the $30-million package is attractive, spokeswoman Amy Schwenker said.

"We believe Florida — and the Tampa Bay area in particular — has the potential to be an excellent fit in this regard," she said.

Draper is a nonprofit spinoff from research labs at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It employs more than 1,000 people and earned almost $400-million in revenue in 2005-06, according to IRS filings.

It has built microchip robots and guidance systems used in moon landers.

At USF, Draper will work in the field of "BioMEMS" — microelectromechanical systems — or tiny microscopic machines that can be used in the medical field.

In particular, the company hopes to develop vehicles about a tenth of the diameter of a human hair to deliver drug treatments, said Rod Casto, USF's associate vice president for research.

Today, people typically take pills or receive injections that affect their whole body, though an illness may be based in a particular spot. Such delivery systems can lead to side effects, particularly in the elderly.

Draper wants to use microscopic vehicles to send a smaller quantity of a drug to the precise area that needs it. "With BioMEMS, you can place the machine and the drug at the site of action," Casto said.

Operations at USF are expected to begin in 2010 and Draper must reach its 100-job quota by 2017. Hillsborough officials predict that the project will spawn other companies there that would generate another 171 high-tech jobs within five years.

In St. Petersburg, Draper must lease land somewhere in the city, produce 65 jobs and invest at least $7-million in equipment, according to documents. That operation is expected to focus on research and development of tiny silicone chips, said city development director Rick Mussett.

If Draper later wants to expand into manufacturing, the city will provide land worth $2-million in the Dome Industrial District, a Midtown area roughly bounded by Interstate 275, First Avenue S and 34th Street.

The city already owns sufficient vacant land for a Draper plant on 22nd Street S, across from a huge Job Corps project that is under construction in the Dome district, where hundreds of young people will be trained in job skills.

"We are probably talking two or three or four years down the road" for a Draper manufacturing plant, Mussett said. "We anticipate that if they take it to the next level, and get into manufacturing, then they will be creating jobs for the Dome Industrial District."

Documents supplied to Pinellas County commissioners indicate that Draper expects to partner with SRI, a defense contractor, on high-tech development.

SRI officials did not return a phone call for comment.

"They have a relationship and a tremendous opportunity for synergy between the two," Musssett said. "They are both top-notch companies."

. fast facts

The Draper deal

The governments would provide:

• $15-million from state of Florida Innovation Incentive Fund ($10-million for Hillsborough project, $5-million for the Pinellas project)

• $6-million from Hillsborough County

• $4-million from USF Research Foundation

• $2-million from Pinellas County for relocation costs

• $2-million-worth of land from St. Petersburg for expansion

• $1-million from the Florida High Tech Corridor Council

Draper is expected to:

• Invest at least $20-million in capital

• Create at least 100 research and development jobs in Hillsborough County within seven years, and at least 65 in Pinellas, with average salaries of at least $75,000 a year

• Generate $50-million in new research funding to USF annually by year seven.

• Spin off at least one new company a year, beginning in year four.

Sources: Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, city of St. Petersburg

Bay area attracts new lab with incentives 07/16/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, July 23, 2008 11:47am]
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