SRI St. Petersburg shifts business strategy with shakeup at the top

The marine research center sets its sights on selling underwater products and partners with NASA.
Published August 5 2015
Updated August 6 2015

Larry Langebrake is out as the director of the elite SRI International marine science research facility that opened with much fanfare six years ago in its own facility on the downtown St. Petersburg waterfront.

"I am currently no longer working as director of SRI, that is true," Langebrake, 57, confirmed Wednesday. But he left open the possibility he may yet have a role to play at SRI. "The final chapter has not yet been written," he said, adding he is "exploring his options."

In Langebrake's place is a new SRI leader: Grant Palmer. He was recruited from a tech firm called Liquid Robotics in Washington, D.C., where he helped serve federal government clients.

The leadership switch at the top signals SRI's desire to move beyond the Langebrake era of academic-oriented research and development to a business-driven operation selling technology products for underwater analysis and — in a fresh twist — space exploration as a partner with NASA.

"If we go to Mars, we want to know what's there," said Scott Seaton, who heads Advanced Technology and Systems, SRI International's largest R&D division in California. Underwater sensors designed to operate in hostile environments can be leveraged for use in space, he said.

Seaton described Langebrake as the "right guy for the right time" at SRI. "But this is the right move," he said. "Palmer is part of the investment strategy to grow this business."

Palmer's online resume at LinkedIn cites a master's degree in engineering from the Florida Institute of Technology and describes a wide array of skill sets. Among them: "Experience in startups, larger corporation new business expansions, restructuring and turn-around situations, and engaging and satisfying board members and investment capital partners."

The concern of many in the Tampa Bay area is making sure SRI doesn't pull up stakes as another high-end research firm, Draper Lab of Cambridge, Mass., did earlier this year. Draper vacated lab space on the Tampa campus of USF and is trying to sell a high-tech clean-room manufacturing facility it had purchased in St. Petersburg. Draper, an MIT spinoff, was retrenching under federal funding pressure and also under a new CEO.

The loss of Draper and SRI — each one expanded here about the same time — would be viewed as a major blow to the bay area's reputation for recruiting top-notch technology research organizations.

Seaton said that is not SRI's plan. "We intend to stay and grow." But he also emphasized the difficult challenge SRI has faced trying to transition into a commercially viable business here.

When SRI arrived in St. Petersburg, city leaders hoped the 38,000-square-foot, city-owned facility adjacent to USF St. Petersburg would mark a new era in job creation and entice other high-tech companies to make St. Petersburg their home. To assist SRI, Pinellas County and the state agreed to cover $10 million for construction. And the city would lease the facility to SRI for $1 in annual rent for 10 years.

In return for tax incentives, SRI initially agreed to employ 100 people by 2012 with jobs that paid average salaries of $55,000 to $63,000.

Since then, the deep recession and slow recovery has lowered expectations. The firm currently employs 54 in Florida, mostly in its St. Petersburg facility but with some employees based elsewhere in Pinellas and in Orlando.

Langebrake said SRI started reassessing its priorities when a new CEO took over in California late last year.

"It's great to have SRI in Florida and I am optimistic that what I worked hard to create will flourish," he said. "I am hopeful SRI continues to see and support its Florida office as a priority."

Contact Robert Trigaux at [email protected]