University of Florida drives innovation, jobs

Published January 7 2012
Updated January 7 2012

As Florida lawmakers seek to nurture small businesses and create jobs in the legislative session starting Tuesday, they have an increasingly active and able partner in the Sunshine State's only top-20 public research university.

The University of Florida has long focused on teaching, research and service. Today, a fourth mission of fostering economic development is rapidly becoming equally central. Tapping UF professors' research to create new spinoff companies, new jobs and new products is now an integral part of what we do.

UF on Wednesday will hold the grand opening ceremony for its second incubator for university spinoff companies, the Florida Innovation Hub — the first building in a planned 40-acre public-private partnership in Gainesville called Innovation Square. A year from now, the university will enroll its first students in the Innovation Academy, an undergraduate program that has already drawn 2,200 applicants from new students interested in technology and entrepreneurship.

Neither the Innovation Hub nor the Academy are first steps. Rather, they add two key parts to a UF innovation engine already powering up Florida's high-tech industry:

• UF patents about 150 inventions, licenses about 70 technologies, and spins off about a dozen small companies each year — most based in Florida.

• UF's first incubator, founded in 1994 for biotechnology, has nurtured 41 companies and attracted more than a half-billion grant and private dollars.

• Graduates of the biotech incubator have created about 750 jobs directly, with all UF spinoffs responsible for an estimated 8,000 jobs. Many are highly paid, with average biotech workers' salary nationally at $68,000.

Florida's unemployment rate dropped to 10 percent in November, its lowest level in more than two years. UF's experience with innovation to date suggests the university can help to sustain this positive trend — through the university's own investments, as well as a strengthened partnership with the state.

When technology companies are first started, they face a big hurdle acquiring the physical capabilities and financial support to prove their merit. The Hub addresses the first challenge by giving companies state-of-the-art labs, equipment, offices, conference facilities and communications technology.

Paid for with federal and university dollars, the 48,000-square-foot Hub has been open for business only since October. Yet it is already home to no fewer than 15 startups — as well as the offices of venture capitalists, law firms, design firms and other entities that offer services to startups. All are located in a three-story space carefully designed to bring together scientists, innovators and entrepreneurs just a few blocks from the UF campus.

As startups grow, their need for financial support soars. All too often, these companies fail not because they have poor ideas or bad management — but rather because they can't raise enough money to reach the size where they can attract the attention of deep-pocketed venture capitalists.

Florida lawmakers deserve credit for trying to help technology startups. Legislation approved in 2007 enabled the Florida Retirement System's pension fund to devote 1.5 percent of its assets to Florida-centric technology and growth investments. Lawmakers have also lent startups a hand through the Florida Opportunity Fund, which invests in private venture firms committed to financing companies at their most fragile, earliest stages.

In his proposed budget for this year, Gov. Rick Scott directs $1 million to the Florida Institute for the Commercialization of Public Research, which has an office in UF's Innovation Hub. The institute provides seed grants to help startups through their so-called "valley of death" early stage. Scott's proposed investment, which follows $10 million for seed grants last year, is a good step — one that hopefully will inspire Florida lawmakers to seek more ways to support these infant companies.

University spinoffs attract dollars and create jobs in Florida. They also develop ways to improve health care, technology and safety:

• UF spinoff HyGreen is marketing a hospital hand hygiene system that reduced infections 89 percent at Miami Children's Hospital during a trial.

• UF's Banyan Biomarkers is making progress toward a new technology to better detect traumatic brain trauma.

• UF's Prioria develops and markets tiny, portable surveillance airplanes designed to give American soldiers an edge in combat.

This year, UF will celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Morrill Act, the federal legislation that created land-grant universities. Signed by Abraham Lincoln in 1862, the act envisioned public universities building their states through education, agriculture and engineering.

UF's growing commitment to innovation is the latest embodiment of the Morrill Act mission. The university looks forward to working with Scott and the Legislature to realize the full potential for Florida.

J. Bernard Machen is president of the University of Florida.