LARGO — Celebrating five years in May as a business incubator for small but promising defense and technology companies, Star TEC — the Star Technology Enterprise Center — is busy growing staff and tenants, and expanding its influence across the Tampa Bay region.
"A lot of what Star TEC does is in the CentCom and SOCom (defense) space and a lot of that is restricted to public disclosure," said Robin Kovaleski, executive director of the Florida Venture Forum and an advisory board member at Star TEC.
Though there's little publicity about the companies growing in the sturdy-looking former U.S. Department of Energy facility on Bryan Dairy Road that once built triggers for nuclear weapons, investors and the defense industry are becoming aware of the center and its inhabitants.
"In the beginning we spent most of our time educating the public about what an incubator is," said Tonya Elmore, the center's executive director.
Now Elmore's office is flooded with inquiries from prospective tenants. The economy may be slow, but the incubator is chugging along at a good pace, officials said.
"There are a lot of individuals in the workplace now taking opportunities to create their own business," Elmore said.
"Besides, the type of technology our clients are selling is not related to the economy."
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A peek at three tenants
Alaka'i Consulting & Engineering Inc.
The company with the Hawaiian name moved to the center two years ago. Since then, Alaka'i has worked on laser sensors that detect explosives and protect soldiers in battlefields and at home.
The company has grown from two employees to 13 full- and part-time employees, and this year revenues are expected to touch $2-million, said Ed Dottery, president.
Alaka'i is considered one of the center's success stories. This fall, it's cutting its umbilical cord and taking its own space outside of the accelerator.
"I thought I would like it here," Dottery said. "But I actually love it."
The center, a hotbed of research and development, fosters networking opportunities among its clients and lets them grow faster and more effectively, Dottery said.
Field Forensics Inc.
The newest kid on the block, Field Forensics set up shop at the accelerator two months ago. The company manufactures pocket-sized and disposable trace explosives detectors, designed for use by security personnel, police officers and military personnel. FFI also distributes equipment for bomb squads and explosives ordnance disposal teams, such as bomb suits and hook and line gear. The company boasts customers, including major cruise lines, the FBI, nuclear power plants, the U.S. Army and the U.S. State Department. It hopes to expand its business to schools.
"What I wanted was increased visibility in marketplace," said Craig Johnson, president. "By being in the Star center, our awareness among the police, military and security customers has increased. We are getting a lot more contacts now."
If it continues on the same track, the company hopes to be the No. 1 supplier of portable explosive detection kits in the United States in three years, and the No. 2 supplier of bomb squad equipment for North America in three years.
ID Rank Security Inc.
The company builds products that protect data leakage from servers, networks and computers.
"We have the capabilities to block a rogue e-mail or keystroke logger," says CEO Peter Rung, who cofounded the company with David Boubion.
ID Rank moved to the incubator two years ago because it offered infrastructure, perks such as an advisory board, and legal, accounting and intellectual property rights counseling, Rung said.
The company has eight employees nationwide and has bagged several patents. ID Rank wouldn't disclose its revenues, but said it has grown exponentially since its arrival at Star TEC. Its chief targets? Customers in the financial, government and health care sectors.
"We have no plans of leaving any time soon," Rung said of the company's home at Star TEC. But the company is soon planning to expand in the Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta areas.
By the numbers | Some highlights of the center's contribution to the Pinellas County economy:
Average wage of an employee at a tenant company
More than 60
Number of full-time and part-time jobs
created by the center
$7.3-million: Money raised in capital/grants
23: New products created by tenant companies
7: New patents created by tenant companies
7: Number of tenants
2: Graduates, Imaginail Corp. and Cybershield Technologies