Talk of town when it arrived, Draper Lab sounds retreat from Tampa Bay

The loss of the high-tech company is a blow to St. Petersburg and USF in Tampa.
Published April 21 2015
Updated April 21 2015

Draper Lab, an MIT spinoff lured with much fanfare to expand to both Tampa and St. Petersburg in 2009, is shutting down most of its operations here, saying its initial plans to grow in Florida aren't working.

Draper's arrival in Florida six years ago coincided with a burst of premier medical and high tech research firms that included the likes of Scripps Research in Jupiter and SRI International in St. Petersburg. Their recruitments seemed to herald a new era both for Florida's high-tech image and for higher-wage jobs.

Now the pullback of highly regarded Draper is considered a blow to the prestige of the University of South Florida, which had partnered for years with a Draper bioengineering facility on its Tampa campus. For USF to attract an enterprise started at MIT was a signal to many that the university had become capable of playing in the big leagues of science and technology.

USF officials declined to talk about Draper's retreat on Monday because they hadn't received any formal notice from the company.

Draper officials told the Tampa Bay Times that the company will leave by June 30, though the "precise future" of the facility has yet to be determined.

Draper — whose expertise ranges from missile guidance systems and drone technology to advanced medical delivery systems — also had purchased and upgraded a building on 16th Street in St. Petersburg to produce miniaturized semiconductor chips. That operation is now up for sale.

"We hate to lose Draper," said Mike Meidel, the head of Pinellas County's economic development efforts. "But I do not see much fallout. My understanding is they are not leaving because there were problems here in Florida but because of decisions made there (in Cambridge, Mass.) with their goals."

The exact number of affected jobs is unclear for now, but they employ fewer than 100 people here. A good number of those jobs are high-paying.

In Tampa, Draper employed a few dozen, with a similar number in St. Petersburg who, for now, remain on the Draper payroll while potential buyers are sought for the specialized manufacturing building. The company initially had hoped to grow its local work force to 165, but that effort fizzled.

"To date, Draper has been unable to recover its investments in the Tampa area related to the Draper Bioengineering Center at USF," said company spokesman Eric T. Mazzacone. "Moving forward we will continue to seek opportunities to work with USF on biomedical related efforts."

Draper initially was drawn here with an incentive package of up to $30 million that included money from Pinellas and Hillsborough counties, the city of St. Petersburg, USF's Research Foundation and the Florida High Tech Corridor Council as well as matching funds from the state. Some of those funds will likely be returned by Draper depending in part on whether it lays off its St. Petersburg employees or is able to find a buyer of its semiconductor operation that will also continue to employ Draper's workers.

After the company's arrival in Tampa Bay, Draper's CEO, James Shields, and marketing executive Len Polizzotto visited frequently to reinforce their support for their Florida expansion. But when both men turned 65, company policy required their retirement. Shields was replaced by a new CEO who ordered Draper to consolidate many of its distant operations back to the home office in Massachusetts.

That retreat worries some local leaders that somehow Florida has failed to live up to expectations. Others tried to best spin on it.

Rick Baker, St. Petersburg's mayor in 2009, had celebrated the grand opening of Draper's manufacturing site with area leaders. Told of Draper's exit plans on Monday, he said he was disappointed but urged the area not to be discouraged.

"Jobs are key," said Baker, who is now president of the Edwards Group. "With the growth of business in the St. Pete downtown and gateway areas, we need to remain committed to supporting the businesses that are here and encouraging others to come. This is especially true of the technology companies whose employees will be attracted to our incredible quality of life."

A similarly upbeat message was issued by St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman's office:

"Great things are happening in St. Petersburg," he said citing recent downtown growth. "But even during the best days, sometimes companies simply have to leave. We are sorry to see Draper Lab go, but the future in the Sunshine City is bright, and something better will take their place soon."

Draper will not disappear completely. It will play to its strength — military customers — and continue to work with U.S. Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base. The firm is now looking for a new site in the area to focus on what the firm calls "rapid proto-typing of new technology solutions."

What remains will be a mere fraction of Draper's current local footprint. What's lost? A powerful symbol of the very type of company Tampa Bay most covets.

Contact Robert Trigaux at Follow @venturetampabay.