Ocean exploration, medical technology, defense businesses examples of innovation in Tampa Bay

As the area looks to become a hub for innovation, three businesses set a good example.
Published August 24 2012
Updated August 25 2012

Tampa Bay's economic engine may not rival California's Silicon Valley in technology startups or Baltimore's Johns Hopkins in medical clout or suburban Washington, D.C., for its defense industry. • Not yet. • Even in a roughed-up economy, Tampa Bay's business culture is nothing if not aspirational. It wants to raise the economic bar and has plans to make it happen. • Twenty years ago, this area proudly called itself the call center capital of America. Tampa Bay still welcomes legions of tourists, as it did 50 years ago. But times are changing. The metro area is eager to rebrand and push the innovation envelope in tech, medicine and marine science, as well as joint venture product development and entrepreneurial starts. • Want proof? Look no further than these three diverse and, frankly, pretty cool businesses busy expanding and pursuing better ways to embrace rapid growth right here.


Debbie Sutherland's new, cutting-edge medical training center for robotic surgery only opened in March, and she's already planning to expand the 90,000-square-foot facility.

That's fast-lane growth. It's a good thing.

In downtown Tampa, Sutherland is CEO of CAMLS — the Center for Advanced Medical Learning and Simulation. She spent 16 years as a Ph.D. executive and associate dean at the University of South Florida medical school. Now she's spearheading efforts to make the three-story CAMLS center, an extension of USF, a go-to place for hospital surgical teams nationwide to learn hands-on use of the latest robotic surgery devices.

"This is Disney for docs," says Sutherland, only half in jest, standing in one of CAMLS' many surgical trauma rooms. It's no coincidence that the facility, strolling distance from the site of the Republican National Convention, will host multiple events this coming week. The facility and its promise are things Tampa wants to tout. Loudly.

Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn has called CAMLS the most important downtown development in at least 20 years.

Downtown Tampa wins because CAMLS will bring thousands of busy medical professionals to the city for multiday training and the chance to spend their money nearby. Sutherland, 59, is optimistic the city's downtown area and adjacent Channelside district will continue its upswing, adding more entertainment, restaurants and shopping to appeal to her visiting medical teams.

Many powerful fingers have touched CAMLS, including the Department of Defense. Its grant helps support the training of military surgeons who learn under simulated battlefield conditions, including trauma rooms with triple-digit heat, difficult lighting and realistic noise.

That's just one of many layers at CAMLS. Up next is a for-profit subsidiary designed to help commercialize next-generation medical device development and, with luck, create business spinoffs. That makes perfect sense in a Tampa Bay economy known for its bench strength in medical device makers. The area's long served as home to the Florida Medical Manufacturers' Consortium.

Amid such ambitions, USF also funnels medical school students through CAMLS for their own training. Sutherland juggles it all, along with an already proposed physical expansion of the CAMLS complex. Plans call for a Trammell Crow/Colliers Arnold project across downtown's E Brorein Street to connect to CAMLS via a raised walkway. It will link the medical facility with a needed hotel and precious parking space. It includes a planned medical office building where CAMLS administrators can relocate and free up more space in the main medical facility.

As president of USF Health's International Foundation in Panama, Sutherland is also talking about a "CAMLS II" to be built there, catering to regional medical training.

Donning yet another hat, Sutherland also heads Tampa Bay's recently created Research Council. The organization of medical and biotech interests wants to serve as a clearinghouse of biomedical information and shareable databases for the region. Its goal: to become a catalyst for encouraging more research organizations here.


Ask defense contractor Crystal Culbertson, 38, what's hot in the defense industry, and she responds before the question is finished.

Cyber security.

The military wants to significantly beef up the telecommunications and network security of its armed forces so that information sent to a warrior in the field is protected from prying enemies.

"This will be big in 2013 and beyond," says Culbertson, CEO of Crystal Clear Technologies in St. Petersburg, a provider of IT services to the U.S. military.

Knowing that cyber security is the next red-hot priority is one key to CCT's success. Culbertson spends lots of time, in her words, "seeing where the military says it is going." She was recently in San Antonio, Texas, for a military conference and then off to the Pentagon for face time with military liaisons to small-business contractors. She also credits Tom Hobbins, a retired four-star general, former commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe and recruited to CCT's advisory board, for opening many defense doors.

Add that competitive intelligence to Culbertson's reputation for navigating the complex and bureaucratic world of military contracting, and the result is a young, fast-growing company.

How fast? Last year, the firm landed on the Inc. 500 list of the nation's fastest-growing private companies at a stunning No. 5 with $16.5 million in revenues and three-year revenue growth of 16,048 percent. Now larger, CCT landed on this year's Inc. 5000 list at No. 513, just missing the more elite Inc. 500 cutoff. Its "slower" growth rate in revenues? Try 745 percent.

Culbertson isn't worried about going from warp speed to merely superfast. She's too busy. She's gone from 14 employees last year to 20 and, she says, now built a core of people who can leverage CCT revenues from $20 million on up to $50 million in time.

CCT is squeezed into a low-profile, dark-green building along Central Avenue. With three new hires this month, Culbertson was bumped from her own office to a small conference room. That will change when CCT relocates this fall into a new headquarters building several blocks west on Central.

The new HQ has room for 30, prompting Culbertson to laugh. "We may start looking at expansion before we move in."

One sign that CCT is growing up is Culbertson's plan to become a primary contractor on military projects more often instead of a subcontractor.

That's a big step up in maturity for a small defense contractor whose motto is "Serving Those Who Serve."

Being located here, so close to Tampa's MacDill Air Force Base — home to SOCOM (U.S. Special Operations Command) and CENTCOM (U.S. Central Command) — keeps Culbertson near key military operations and their IT needs.

In fact, CCT belongs to a vast industry of defense contractors in the Tampa Bay area. Many cater to MacDill.

Other firms were started by retired military personnel who worked here and opted to stay. Culbertson hopes to tap into the broader network of Tampa Bay defense contractors and find partners that can make her bids for military contracts even more competitive. And in her "down time" as CEO and mother of three school-age kids, Culbertson says she wants to build a regional Women in Defense industry group.

Culbertson admits there's plenty of talk of looming budget cuts in defense. But that also means the military will want private firms like CCT to help figure out better ways to stretch military budgets without cutting security.


For many years, Tampa's Odyssey Marine Exploration came across as more of a "Florida boys with ocean toys" story than a self-sustaining, publicly traded corporation. Odyssey used to find a shipwreck, recover some trinkets and even some gold or silver at times. But then it would go back to outside investors, hat in hand, to recapitalize and pay for another round of trolling the oceans for bounty.

That cycle may be changing, thanks to advancing technology, changing markets for ocean resources and the Black Swan. That's the code name of the shipwreck Odyssey found containing some half-billion dollars in silver — but then lost in a high-profile court case to Spain, the colonial ship's original owner.

That event forced Odyssey CEO Gregory Stemm and Mark Gordon, president and chief operating officer, to rethink the company's future. Finding shipwrecks was great. But the possibility of fighting more countries in court over the lucrative contents of those wrecks was not a good business model.

"That ordeal was not encouraging," says Gordon, 52, who calls hunting for shipwrecks his childhood dream.

The solution? Diversification. Odyssey now is developing new revenue streams, leveraging new underwater search technology and approaching a financial turning point.

The company still hunts for ocean shipwrecks. Gordon says there are millions of wrecks under the seas. Odyssey itself has mapped 6,300 and knows of 100 that likely hold cargo (mostly silver, gold and other metals), each worth $50 million or more. It's also pursuing more contemporary sunken ships made of steel (easier to find on radar) that often carry bulk amounts of nickel or copper that can turn a tidy profit.

Odyssey recently found the 1941 steel-hulled British ship SS Gairsoppa, which has yielded 48 tons of silver bullion. The ship was 3 miles under the ocean — deeper than the Titanic. It's a depth that Odyssey's expertise and technology can handle but few other treasure hunting firms can approach.

"There's still a lot of potential," says Gordon.

But now there's another potentially lucrative and more certain line of business for Odyssey: Getting paid to find ocean-floor deposits of gold and silver, copper, cobalt, lead and zinc. These plots of undersea ore are called massive sulfides. And like a modern gold rush, they are prompting countries and companies to stake claims as such key resources get tougher to find and more expensive to mine on dry land.

A final business niche emerging for Odyssey is as a hunter of ocean-floor phosphate to be dredged and used as a key ingredient in fertilizer.

Gordon tips his cap to Tampa, praising the area as a great place for a small company with big dreams like Odyssey. The airport is terrific, he says. The business community is friendly and easy to get to know. Most of Odyssey's original investors are local, Gordon says, and many still back the unusual company more than 15 years later.

"We could operate this business from anywhere," he says. "But we like it here."

Robert Trigaux can be reached at [email protected]

Editor's note: These columns are part of the Tampa Bay Times' collaboration with the Huffington Post's initiative called "Opportunity: What is Working," which seeks to share stories of businesses and academic leaders growing and creating jobs in this down economy.