Skeptics wondering what the fuss is all about when Tampa Bay fights to recruit top-tier biotech and engineering firms might find some comfort in touring the still young Draper Bioengineering Center at the University of South Florida. After all, for years we've heard all the noise about "biotech" as a primo 21st century industry. And we've witnessed the sometimes desperate (and often expensive) desire by Florida to woo all kinds of scientific and innovative industries. The hope is they can, over time, help diversify Florida's economy with better-paying jobs and globally help rebrand the Sunshine State as a place that conjures up images beyond beaches, theme parks and retirement communities.
So come take the Draper tour with me.
The Draper facility on USF's campus is part of Draper Lab out of Cambridge, Mass., whose engineers specialize in taking university research and finding often remarkable ways to solve real-world problems with it. Draper's especially adept at taking machines and miniaturizing them. I'm talking about making objects small enough, for example, to inject in someone's bloodstream to help deliver a medicine directly to a cancer site. Draper does many other things, too.
I recently was invited to visit Draper at USF by Draper executive Len Polizzotto. He's the dynamo who helped bring Draper to this Tampa facility and St. Petersburg (where it does high-tech manufacturing in its own building).
I'd wanted to see Draper's USF operation first hand. Polizzotto thought the timing was good because Draper, operating barely two years at USF, is doubling its space by adding another 10,000 square feet of labs and offices to accommodate a growing number of collaborative projects. Those projects range from finding new ways to combat malaria — funded in part by the Gates Foundation — to detecting and analyzing brain injuries such as concussions and war wounds or post traumatic stress syndrome, and engineering devices that help people who have lost the ability to balance themselves to do so and even walk.
I also met with Shankar Sundaram, 42, who directs Draper's bioengineering center. He was hired in early 2009 specifically to run this facility. That task not only includes making sure his scientific staff is on track and getting the resources they need, but also seeking collaborative partners as diverse as USF, Tampa's James. A Haley VA Medical Center and the Moffitt Cancer Center, as well as MacDill Air Force Base.
"Collaboration is one of the main pillars of our business strategy," Sundaram says. "We realized early on that we cannot be an island and be successful."
This collaborative mantra is critical. USF's Karen Holbrook, who holds the lofty title of senior vice president for research, innovation and global affairs, stopped by the Draper labs to chat and convey her enthusiasm for the firm's arrival on the university campus and the merit of partnering in a wide swath of potential projects.
There are clearly good vibes between USF and Draper. USF knows there are many things it cannot attempt to do without Draper's can-do engineering (and enormous contacts in the federal government and defense world). And Draper readily admits to many opportunities it can pursue only with USF research.
Enough talk about this lovefest. But there is an infectious quality to watching smart, experienced people talk about tackling big, real-world problems with almost childlike wonder and a sense of optimism.
Of course, Draper did not arrive here without elaborate negotiations and funding. The state and counties offered up money and, in turn, Draper said it would create better-paying jobs, enough to make everybody happy.
How's that going?
In Tampa, Draper's got 20 full-time employees, plus seven undergraduate and graduate students and is seeking to fill six positions.
Thirty employees now work at Draper's multichip module manufacturing building on 16th Street in St. Petersburg. That brings the total Tampa Bay work force to 50-plus with an average salary of about $84,000 (that's 12 percent above Draper's target). The value of proposed Draper projects tops $80 million.
Given this weak economy, all those numbers deserve some applause and bode well for growth. USF and Draper already are talking about the possibility of building a separate facility to accommodate further Draper expansion, if enough partnerships happen.
But recruiting firms like Draper is no picnic.
Another biotech heavyweight called Jackson Lab, which does genetics research in Maine, tried several times in multiple Florida locations to establish a research facility here in the past few years. It finally agreed to build a research unit in Sarasota County that would have worked with USF (and probably Draper). The deal collapsed in recent weeks after Florida's budget-constrained government could not deliver on its share of incentive funds. Last week, Jackson Lab said it would seek to expand elsewhere in the country.
Polizzotto, who now oversees Draper's Florida business development opportunities from the firm's Cambridge headquarters, is a one-man advertising agency for the potential in Tampa Bay and at USF. He rattles off a long list of projects Draper wants to pursue here — especially an energy innovation center.
Why is he such a cheerleader?
Because, Polizzotto says, he sees wide-open acceptance and a refreshing lack of ego from Florida economic development leaders and from USF.
That matters a lot, he says, when you're trying to solve some of the world's toughest problems.
Robert Trigaux can be reached at email@example.com.