By Vickie Chachere
TAMPA, Fla. – When nationally-renowned Draper Laboratory decided to open facilities in the Tampa Bay area three years ago, it was a bold move that endorsed the region’s potential to grow a high-tech, high-wage economy.
As a new partner to the University of South Florida, Draper’s arrival also signaled the potential to collaborate on research with life-changing potential.
Now, Draper’s Tampa Bay presence is about to get another big boost: a doubling of its research space at USF Connect and adding more positions to its local workforce.
Draper’s local workforce will grow in Tampa to about 50 people in a year, said Len Polizzotto, Draper’s Vice President for strategic business development. It’s collaborations with USF on such key global challenges as fighting malaria and creating new tools to diagnose post-traumatic stress disorder have quickly emerged as signature programs.
“It’s not what Draper is doing, it’s what collectively USF and Draper are doing,”Polizzotto said. “We feel very strongly that we have a special partnership with USF.
“Everything we do, we like to think we are doing together.”
New Labs, New Discoveries
Founded by Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineer Charles Stark Draper, the non-profit research laboratory holds a special place in American history. Draper invented inertial navigation, allowing planes, ships, submarines and later space vehicles to navigate by using gyroscopes, and other instruments and later more advanced technologies. The Draper Lab developed the Apollo Guidance Computer for NASA, making the Apollo moon landings possible.
The modern Draper is focused on key areas such as healthcare, security, energy and has continued to play a major role in space exploration and the development of the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station. Headquartered in Cambridge, Mass., it has had an office and staff in Houston since the Apollo program and expanded to Washington D.C. in the late 1980s and recently to Huntsville, Tampa and St. Petersburg.
Three years ago, then-Gov. Charlie Crist and Draper Laboratory's CEO Jim Shields announced Draper’s move into the Tampa Bay region as a major coup in building a new high-tech economy for Florida. The seven-year plan will create 165 new jobs between the two Draper locations at an average wage of $75,000. Polizzotto said despite the economic downturn, the plan remains on track.
USF President Judy Genshaft, who played a key role in selling Draper executives on the idea of a Tampa Bay location, heralded the move as an important step forward in advancing real-world research and repositioning the regional economy.
The physical manifestation of the growing partnership is Draper’s expansion – an additional 10,000 square feet of laboratory space for its biomedical-themed research efforts that are due to be completed by the end of the year.
Sidebar: Draper Connects In Space. Space shuttle’s last flight is the end of an era for USF partner Draper, but signals the start of new ventures to come. Read the story.
Working alongside Draper’s researchers and technicians are two USF Draper Laboratory Fellows, one master’s degree and one PhD student, who have an opportunity to work on major projects. USF undergraduate students also have a role to play, working alongside Draper scientists on experiments, cell cultures and honing their lab skills.
To tour Draper’s secure facilities on the upper floors of USF Connect is to step onto the front lines battling some of the world’s most vexing maladies.
Shankar Sundaram, the Tampa research center’s director, describes a futuristic and hopeful – but not all that far away - world of tiny implantable pumps that put medicines directly where they are needed without causing toxic reactions in parts of the body where they are not.
In one laboratory, scientists are examining cancer cells under a microscope and looking at new drug delivery systems. In another, experiments are underway in the development of new products that could help pioneer the development of artificial livers and kidneys. In a third lab, a technician is testing a new generation of diagnostic instrument that measures light moving through tissue, a device that in its development was tested aboard the Space Shuttle.
Across the bay in Pinellas County, Draper’s focus is different but again complementary: creating miniscule electronic circuitry that runs very small machines and looking to create new efficiencies through technological breakthroughs. Its projects are especially focused in the security sector.
The most high profile of the Tampa-based projects is the $5.45 million Gates Foundation award with USF Health to develop technologies to study malaria parasites in hopes that will speed the development of more effective vaccines and treatments. The projects include the development of an advanced device that would mimic the human liver to better study the life cycle of the malaria parasite. The goal of the project: to make the research process more efficient and more targeted so that it can lead to better and quicker remedies.
In many ways, the project illustrates the power of the USF-Draper partnership, Polizzotto noted. USF’s strength is in carrying out the research while Draper’s strength is in developing a new technology or process.
To do that, researchers are exploring the development of everything from extremely small, implantable sensors that can wirelessly transmit health information to tiny microchips that could deliver medicine directly to the part of the body that needs treatment. Accompanying that technology are data analysis systems that make sense of what these small devices and transmitters report back on a patients’ progress.
“You have to define a very important customer need,” he said. “You need to do the research to develop the technology and then take the technology and prototype it.”
In addition to working with campus entities such as USF Health and the College of Engineering, Draper also has forged ties with Moffitt Cancer Center, the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital, MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa General Hospital, and Progress Energy.
“The university is significantly on the rise and if you take the whole region with Moffitt, USF Health, USF Medical School, Tampa General Hospital and the Haley VA, there really is a concentration of institutions that’s hard to find anyplace else,” Polizzotto said. “In Boston, you have a lot of research facilities focused on basic technology development while in Tampa, the focus is more on applied research.”
Vickie Chachere can be reached at 813-974-6251.