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Tech firm SRI slowly blossoming

ST. PETERSBURG — Movers and shakers of St. Petersburg could not have been more optimistic when they used millions in state and local tax money to lure a Silicon Valley research firm called SRI to town.

Eighteen months later, SRI has 60 people working in temporary offices, has won a big antiterrorism contract and is doing work for the Special Operations Command at MacDill Air Force Base, NOAA, the National Science Foundation and the Army's Space and Missile Defense Command.

But construction has been delayed on a 36,000-square-foot permanent research facility the company plans to build in St. Petersburg. The public officials who pushed for $30-million in incentives still believe the investment was worth it, but acknowledge it's too early to see a full payoff.

"I don't expect instant results," said St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker.

Still, he points to two encouraging signs: SRI's $36.5-million antiterrorism contract with the Navy and its help in attracting interest from another high-tech firm, Charles Stark Draper Laboratory, which is also being offered $30-million in tax incentives to expand to Tampa and St. Petersburg.

"Getting anything like this together is a challenge," said Larry Langebrake, director of SRI's marine technology program in St. Petersburg. Still, he's "very pleased with how the opportunities have begun to materialize."

The company employs 68 people statewide, 60 of them locally, which is a little ahead of schedule, Langebrake said. In return for tax incentives, it agreed to employ 50 by the start of this year, and hire another 10 to 15 each year, reaching 100 employees by 2012. The jobs are supposed to carry average salaries of $55,000 to $63,000. And although this is not part of SRI's formal commitment with the state, the company has said it hopes to employ 200 within 10 years.

Most workers are wedged into cramped quarters in a small complex of white temporary buildings on the USF St. Petersburg campus, so they and USF look forward to SRI moving into a planned two-story waterfront building next door to the college.

SRI, developer of the computer mouse

SRI International is a nonprofit California company with a storied history. Begun as a research arm of Stanford University, it is best known for developing the computer mouse.

The company said it was drawn to St. Petersburg because of the University of South Florida College of Marine Science, which has the engineering talent to turn ideas into reality. SRI wants to take those ideas and help USF turn them into marketable products.

Its biggest project is to develop a system to closely monitor ships in Tampa Bay using sensors and cameras above and below the surface. It could be a model for other U.S. ports, the Navy hopes.

Marine science professor Mark Luther said the system could use sophisticated software to track ships moving in unusual ways and "look for things that aren't quite right.''

The project is part of the new National Center for Maritime and Port Security in St. Petersburg, led by SRI along with USF and St. Petersburg College.

Peter Betzer, the former USF marine science dean who helped engineer the SRI deal, said the contract wouldn't have come in without SRI's expertise.

"We wouldn't have had a chance," Betzer said.

Langebrake would not discuss in detail SRI's other work for agencies such as Special Operations Command, but said he hopes this work eventually will amount to as much as the $36.5-million Navy contract.

SRI is also coordinating USF's pioneering research on micro-electromechanical machines that are smaller than the width of a human hair.

USF's Center for Ocean Technology produced tiny machines capable of sensing different chemicals in underwater environments. They can be mass-produced cheaply, Langebrake said, so scientists can deploy several at once.

The tiny machines are manufactured at a Largo facility where employees dress in "bunny suits" to prevent dust particles from getting into the tiny machinery.

Draper Laboratory, the Cambridge, Mass., company that is considering opening offices in St. Petersburg and Tampa, also is an expert in micro machines, including some that deliver medicines inside the human body.

A key Draper executive, Len Polizzotto, worked at SRI when it negotiated the tax incentives used to lure the company and is said to be one reason the company is eying the Tampa Bay area.

Langebrake said these kinds of high-tech businesses feed off each other.

"They want to cluster together just like they did in Silicon Valley in the 1960s."

Soil problems delay building at USF

Other SRI projects include an "underwater mass spectrometer," another carryover from USF capable of carefully analyzing the makeup of ocean water.

The ultimate goal is to turn these ideas into money-making products, but Langebrake was mum about what those prospects might be.

The company's planned building next to the College of Marine Science got off to a slower-than-expected start. Soil tests showed the waterfront land could not support a three-story building, so it was redesigned and scaled back to two stories. Langebrake said construction should begin in October and take about 18 months.

U.S. Rep. Bill Young, R-St. Petersburg, who has used his clout to funnel Defense Department dollars to the region, sees a bright future for SRI. With the company's expertise in defense contracts, and USF's expertise in marine science, the two are particularly well-positioned to fulfill the U.S. Homeland Security need to protect the ports.

"I'm optimistic about the future, not only about the work they will do but also the jobs that they are creating."

Times Staff Writer Stephen Nohlgren contributed to this report.

Tech firm SRI slowly blossoming 07/26/08 [Last modified: Sunday, July 27, 2008 9:26pm]

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