GAINESVILLE — For the University of Florida, the expanse of land across from the 106-year-old campus holds a grand, new vision.
UF leaders hope this 40-acre development called Innovation Square will spawn start-up companies, encourage "creative collisions" among inventors and foster a "collaborative spirit" for research, academics and business.
Read between the buzz words. If successful, the project could mean two important things: jobs and money.
And that's crucial, say leaders of the state's public universities, given the downturn of Florida's other industries, like construction or tourism.
"It's important for us to have our universities really serve as economic engines in their communities and throughout the state," said Ava Parker, chairwoman of the Florida Board of Governors. "I see projects like this, certainly, as a wave of the future."
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UF is not alone.
From Tallahassee to Miami, the state's universities are stepping up with ideas to foster a "knowledge-based economy" by commercializing research or creating partnerships that link university resources to private support.
Take Orlando's medical city at Lake Nona, anchored by the University of Central Florida's medical school. Or, in Jacksonville, a new computer security lab at the University of North Florida developed with help from local businesses, nonprofit organizations and the FBI.
And there's the Tampa Innovation Alliance, an effort of the University of South Florida, the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute, University Community Hospital (now Florida Hospital Tampa) and Busch Gardens to attract high-tech companies to the area.
"We got into the game later than Stanford and MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), but actually, the Florida universities are doing really well," said Michael Hoad, USF's spokesman. "It's exciting."
Many of the initiatives don't require state funding, which has been hard to come by the last few years. On the contrary, project leaders say, these programs could make money for the state, in addition to the university.
"It's not just selfishly about UF or even Gainesville," said that school's vice president for business affairs and economic development, Ed Poppell. "It's about the state of our economy."
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UF says its project is different than your average business incubator.
Situated just a block between the east edge of campus and downtown Gainesville, the development aims to bring together entrepreneurs, investors, researchers and students to create new money-making businesses or products in a "24/7 live-work-play community." But to participate, they'll have to prove themselves.
The start-up companies moving into the 50,000-square-foot incubator at the center of the 40-acre square will be expected to produce jobs. And not just any jobs, but jobs born of new ideas.
Students who want to move into the new 185-bed residence hall across from that building will need to submit a business plan or have already started their own businesses.
In other words, the goal is innovation. And UF hammers that idea every chance it gets — the square is the Innovation Square, the incubator the Innovation Hub, the cohort of students in that dorm is called the Innovation Academy.
For inspiration, they need look no further than the incubator building itself, much different than the Spanish moss-draped brick buildings across the street.
A soaring mural behind the incubator's reception desk depicts UF research projects that have made it to the market, like the special pattern discovered on shark skin that wards off bacteria, and a robotic unmanned aircraft.
To the lobby's right is a breakfast bar with a "bottomless coffee pot." To the left is the new home of UF's Office of Technology Licensing. And on the second and third floors are spaces for 30 to 40 start-up companies, with expensive laboratory equipment and screens for video conferencing. The pattern in the carpet is a swirl of mathematical equations.
Ten start-ups have already signed leases, said Jane Muir, UF's associate director of technology licensing. They'll start moving in next month.
Then comes an adjacent Infusion Technology Center, which will house more mature start-ups, and that new residence hall across the street.
UF expects private entities, like shops, offices and restaurants, to fill the rest of the 40-acre space. There's talk of a grocery store and hotel coming, too.
And it came together in a perfect storm, said Poppell, the business affairs vice president.
The demolition of the Shands at AGH hospital last year opened the corridor between campus and downtown. At the same time, the economic downturn seemed to spawn a new willingness for the university, city and local businesses to work together on potentially lucrative ventures.
The project is basically one big public-private partnership, with no state dollars used so far. The Innovation Hub was paid for with an $8.2 million grant from the federal Economic Development Administration and a $5 million match from the university. The new Innovation Academy dorm is being built by the private Trimark Properties.
"I've lived in this community a long time, and I haven't seen this kind of total cooperation," Poppell said. "Everyone believes this is going to be big for us."
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Okay, but what about the other parts of a university that don't necessarily bring in a bunch of money? What about liberal arts? What about campus life?
"They certainly aren't being left behind," said Parker, from the Board of Governors.
Liberal arts majors continue to be some of the most popular on every university's campus, she said. The increasing emphasis system-wide on fields that generate money or in-demand jobs for graduates is somewhat of a "catch-up."
"There is a need to attract a focus so we can ensure we're keeping up the pace with everyone else in the country," Parker said.
Said UF spokesman Steve Orlando: "We're graduating leaders here, and the best leaders have a broad background that includes liberal arts along with everything else."
Poppell explained it this way: Universities' missions traditionally center around three pillars — education, research and service. Economic development is a kind of fourth pillar, one that runs through the other three.
"We're changing the paradigm," Poppell said. "We've got to be the visionaries."
One more thing, he said.
Watch what happens.
Kim Wilmath can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3337.