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Draper lab's tiny tech could bring big things to economy

Boston-area Draper Laboratory was in town this week to show off its gee-whiz-inspired array of military and medical technology in a two-day expo at the University of South Florida Tampa.

An expo favorite: a superlight, 10-inch, mosquito-shaped surveillance/reconnaissance "Nano Air Vehicle" that flies for 20 minutes and sends visuals or analyzes chemicals. If this minihelicopter is what we get to see, what are they working on in secret for DARPA (the military's advanced research arm) and others?

I only teased the Draper HQ crew, all in logo-emblazoned blue polo shirts, a little about the Red Sox (and about their CEO's name: James Shields, like the Rays' pitcher).

They minimized making me feel stupid looking at their MEMS — microelectromechanical systems — technology. That's geekspeak for incredibly small computer chips to make smart machines and sensors (so small some can fit under the skin), and some cool medical diagnostic devices that have even the Gates Foundation waiting in line.

Draper is the MIT-inspired, 1,200-employee laboratory business of scientists and engineers that is building facilities in Tampa and St. Petersburg. It's one of the home runs in high-tech job recruiting that came to pass thanks to some $30-million in state and local economic incentives. In exchange, Draper will create 165 jobs over several years.

In an interview, Draper Lab principal director Len Polizzotto updated the company's expansion progress to the Tampa Bay area:

• Draper already made an offer on a specific building in St. Petersburg that formerly housed a European tech company named Oerlikon Systems. The 40,000-square-foot building, less than seven years old, is at 10050 16th St. N. The facility's first hire, one of an eventual 65, occurs this week.

The facility will be called the Multi Chip Module (MCM) Center and will design and produce MEMS-based items — Polizzotto prefers to call them "vanishingly small systems."

• Draper's Tampa operation, the BioMEMS R&D Center, will be housed on the second floor of a USF building at 3802 Spectrum Blvd., just off Fowler Avenue. The first 10,000 square feet of the facility's lab space is being assembled, and space of similar size will be added as the work grows. In all, 100 people are expected to work at the Tampa facility within seven years. Its close proximity to the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute was on purpose since Draper's Tampa unit will focus on designing tiny high-tech drug-delivery devices.

• Draper has received more than 500 local resumes. Polizzotto says he is impressed by their caliber.

To be clear, Draper is mostly research and development. Once it makes something that catches the eye of a real customer — the military, NASA or some big medical player, as examples — then it will typically spin off a product line as a commercial company.

One spinoff, Sionex Corp. of Bedford, Mass., specializes in miniaturized chemical- and biological-detection systems.

Then Polizzotto says the magic words:

Tampa Bay should see similar spinoffs in the coming years as Draper gains local momentum.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Draper lab's tiny tech could bring big things to economy 10/22/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 23, 2008 7:13pm]
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