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High tech lab could bring bay area jobs

TAMPA — A research lab that develops microscopic machines for medical and defense uses represents the latest hope for civic leaders who envision Tampa Bay as a high-tech workplace.

Hillsborough County officials confirmed they are in negotiations to bring satellite operations of Cambridge, Mass.-based Charles Stark Draper Laboratory Inc. to Tampa and St. Petersburg.

A key decision takes place today when Hillsborough commissioners consider giving the nonprofit $6-million to come.

Draper is seeking another $4-million from the University of South Florida Research Foundation, and $10-million from the Florida Innovation Incentive Program. Those subsidies must still be approved.

Draper is also seeking public financial support for a $14-million electronics plant in St. Petersburg. The company would team up with an existing, but unnamed, Pinellas County defense contractor to make "multichip modules," an advanced form of circuit boards.

Pinellas County commissioners gave provisional assent to a $2-million subsidy on April 22. On Tuesday, the commission will decide whether to make a formal offer of that amount to the company, said County Commissioner Susan Latvala.

"The jobs are always pretty high wage, and that is one of our strategic goals," she said. "And all things considered that's what we're looking for."

In Hillsborough, the money would go toward turning an unfinished building space at USF into a lab and stocking it with equipment. In return, Draper is expected to create 100 jobs paying $75,000 or more.

Hillsborough officials believe it could lead to another 271 jobs.

"If this project is approved, it will advance our agenda to create a cluster of biotech and high-tech companies in Hillsborough County," said Economic Development director Gene Gray. "This is a field of research that has unlimited potential for scientific discovery and the commercialization of that discovery.

"It's the kind of jobs that any community would welcome."

When governments on both sides of the bay gave preliminary approval to the projects in April, the company behind them was not named. The two proposals are not directly related, but Gray said both must be ratified for either to happen.

The St. Petersburg City Council on June 19 pledged land worth $2-million for the company to build a research and development facility.

The land giveaway depends on a commitment from the company to create high-value jobs and educational opportunities "with a focus on the Midtown area," according to city documents. The company would create 65 jobs in the city that would pay 150 percent of the average county wage.

That same day, June 19, the City Council quietly approved nearly $13-million in incentives for high-tech firm Jabil Circuit, a move that opened up the Council to charges of secretiveness.

After the vote, some councilors admitted to being unsure just what they voted on and called for a review of how the city handles economic development incentive approvals. Like the Jabil deal, the land giveaway was included as part of the consent agenda, a list of supposedly routine items voted on all at once.

In Tampa, Draper could be working with USF scientists to develop drugs and medical devices, said Karen Holbrook, USF vice president of research and innovation.

"It's a very exciting opportunity for us," Holbrook said. "This really is an activity that corresponds so nicely with the kind of things we do in drug discovery and drug development."

Last year, Hillsborough commissioners agreed to spend $28-million to entice drugmaker Merck & Co. to build a research center in partnership with the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute near USF.

Dr. Stephen Klasko, vice president of USF Health and dean of USF's medical school, called the latest deal "an awesome, awesome, awesome thing."

The work Draper would bring to Tampa Bay would be in the bio-MEMS field, Holbrook said. MEMS stands for microelectromechanical systems — microscopic machines built onto silicon chips. USF is working with MEMS in engineering fields, Holbrook said.

"The novel thing is in bio-medical engineering," she said. "They've been doing organ transplant and organ replacement studies, biodegradeable scaffolds."

For example, a tiny scaffold could be used as the structure to help grow skin cells in a lab to create a skin graft for a burn patient. Or MEMS could be used as a new way to deliver drugs to the eye, Holbrook said.

Imagine tiny monitors that could go through your bloodstream and find plaque or cancer, Klasko said. "It's like the Fantastic Voyage stuff," he said. "It's really the pinnacle of bio-medical engineering.

Attempts to reach a Draper representative late Tuesday were unsuccessful. According to Draper's Web site, it's also working on using MEMS to detect pathogens, as well as new devices for diagnosing medical problems or creating medical prosthetics.

Bill Varian can be reached at varian @sptimes.com or (813) 226-3387.

>>FAST FACTS

Draper Laboratory

What: A research and development lab based in Cambridge, Mass., with about 1,025 employees.

Mission: "To serve the national interest" in applied research, engineering and technology.

What it does: Space technology used on the international space station; missile-guidance systems for the Navy; biomedical research on everything from treating brain injuries and massive bleeding to detecting malaria and other pathogens.

History: Charles Frank Draper started a teaching lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1930s. The lab was renamed for Draper and became an independent, not-for-profit research group in the 1970s.

High tech lab could bring bay area jobs 07/15/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 22, 2008 3:50pm]
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