Saturday, April 21, 2018
Business

MIT spinoff Draper is back with a new St. Petersburg facility to meet SOCom needs

Draper's back.

After pulling up earlier stakes on both sides of Tampa Bay, the MIT spinoff on Wednesday debuted its new "rapid prototyping center" in north St. Petersburg with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and tours for area economic development leaders, Congressman David Jolly and, most of all, Jimmy "Hondo" Geurts.

Geurts is the Acquisition Executive for U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCom) at MacDill Air Force Base. That critical job recently keeps Geurts pushing deeper into this area's private sector in search of the best and brightest ways to equip his special forces.

SOCom is the chief client of Draper's new 20,000-square-foot facility, dedicated to putting the latest, lightest and most sophisticated equipment into the hands of U.S. forces.

The Draper center is run by director Bill Ostrowski, a special forces vet who joined Draper in 2011.

"The center is all about speed," Ostrowski says while conducting a tour. The center is a warren of labs that specialize in everything from improving portable military antennae and enhancing portable field sensors that monitor potential toxins, to designing mobile software that can tell soldiers where they are and what's around them.

A nonprofit, Draper's niche is to take promising academic ideas and help commercialize them for other companies to manufacture in volume. Six years ago, Draper set up a facility on USF Tampa's campus to conjure up biomedical innovations. A second site in St. Petersburg manufactured specialized electronics equipment. Last year, Draper pulled the plug on its Tampa lab and sold its St. Petersburg plant.

Now it's Act 2 for Draper in Tampa Bay.

For SOCom, Ostrowski and his 35 tech experts at the St. Pete facility want to be able to deliver a prototype, customize it to the military's needs, build an actual working model and then test it to be sure it works as needed under potentially harsh conditions.

"Proximity is key to SOCom," Ostrowski said. Now he can meet face-to-face with SOCom leaders to brainstorm how to tweak a prototype. That exchange can not be done from Draper's main office in Cambridge, Mass.

Draper's return to the area could prove a broader opportunity. The company will rely on a host of area specialty manufacturers to help make the end products that the company will help pioneer. And Draper plans to offer (for a fee) its testing expertise to small area companies who might need help in the final designs of their own products.

If SOCom's reach into the private sector sounds familiar, it should.

Led by Geurts, SOCom recently established an idea and prototype lab of its own. Called SOFWERX, the lab currently operates in Ybor City, beyond MacDill's cumbersome high-security fences. Geurts recently told me that the more intellectual firepower and innovation he can harness from the private sector, the better for SOCom.

Draper should add to that arsenal.

Contact Robert Trigaux at [email protected] Follow @venturetampabay.

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