From Larry Langebrake's brand new corner office, the director of SRI St. Petersburg boasts a Tampa Bay panorama that sweeps from distant downtown Tampa to St. Petersburg's Pier, the emerging new Salvador Dali Museum and the city's waterfront upscale queue of condos.
But on this Wednesday morning, Langebrake focuses on the ordinary parking lot below. If SRI delivers and grows, he says, that lot will become the site of a second SRI building to handle another hundred workers pondering big solutions to important problems.
"There is a distinction between interesting and important problems," says Langebrake, 51. SRI deals only with important stuff.
On Friday, Tampa Bay gets a formal introduction to such high-tech ambition when SRI International officially unveils its new waterfront building in downtown St. Petersburg. The city built the two-story facility for SRI. It features soft grays and light woods, and a comfy breakroom to encourage creativity with to-die-for views of the water just yards away. Upstairs, cutting-edge labs are being readied for scientists and engineers to tackle challenges ranging from underwater sensor security, Gulf of Mexico algae blooms and aquaculture.
SRI, based in Menlo Park, Calif., is the ex-Stanford University, non-profit scientific research institute with a brainiac reputation. Several years ago, political wooing and economic incentives helped convince SRI to set up shop here. The company was also attracted by the impressive track record of marine science research at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg and the close proximity of such related research groups as NOAA Fisheries Service, U.S. Geological Survey and the state's Fish and Wildlife Research Institute.
SRI's goal? To cull the massive amount of maritime research here to find commercial applications that would help solve some of our most pressing problems.
One better known project is developing underwater sensors to improve security at ports, whose national vulnerability in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Langebrake says, was accurately described as the "soft underbelly of the soft underbelly."
Friday morning's ribbon cutting will be attended by local, state and federal politicians along with area academic and business leaders. Langebrake wants the ceremony to emphasize "teamwork," because it took an enormous coordination of different people and organizations to bring SRI to St. Petersburg.
An electrical engineer by training, Langebrake is lean, thoughtful and obviously passionate about the SRI way. He's been working seven days a week to get SRI geared up on time and relocated from temporary quarters. He joined SRI from USF's Center for Ocean Technology in January 2007.
Langebrake, married with a daughter and son (who happens to be tying the knot on Saturday), moved to Seminole when his kids were in public schools. Now that they're older and on their own, he may move back to St. Petersburg to cut his commute to a minimum.
Much of what SRI does now in California and will do in St. Petersburg is hush-hush stuff funded by the federal government and especially the Department of Homeland Security. Don't look for SRI here to trumpet its big contracts or show off much of its high-tech successes. Most SRI projects will be achieved through joint partnerships with USF and the other marine research organizations within walking distance of the new building.
But do look for SRI and Langebrake to be higher-profile players in Tampa Bay's effort to build a cluster of similar high-tech businesses.
If this sounds familiar, it should. Draper Laboratory, an MIT spinoff based in Cambridge, Mass., was recently convinced, in part by SRI's St. Petersburg commitment, to open two area facilities. One is based at USF in Tampa doing applied research. Another is in its own building in St. Petersburg devoted to nanotechnology-related manufacturing.
Langebrake predicts we will see more and more businesses like SRI and Draper attracted to this part of Florida. He already gets a dozen or more phone calls each month from small high-tech businesses seeking advice on how to take the next growth step.
Is that really part of Langebrake's job? "Absolutely," he says. SRI needs to do all it can to help solidify a technology cluster.
Talk about practicing what you preach. Twenty years ago, a study sponsored by the Florida Chamber of Commerce Foundation recommended that Tampa Bay should sharpen its economic-development focus to encourage the growth of promising high-tech industries.
Who authored the study? SRI International.
Contact Robert Trigaux at [email protected]