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USF tech incubator slowly takes shape

Mike Kovac has been at the University of South Florida for 23 years. And he's been preaching the need for a business incubator on the university's campus for a number of those years.

Now, other city, chamber and community groups in Tampa are talking about creating such a space where technology start-ups can get low-cost rent and support services. So the question is: What is USF up to, and how will its proposal fit in with everyone else's plans?

In an interview this week, Kovac, USF's executive director of high-tech engineering, discussed the university's strategy, its timetable and how it intends to work with the larger community.

Q: Where do plans for the USF incubator stand?

Kovac: Our main thrust right now is to find space on the campus or adjacent to campus, and we hope in the next couple of weeks to have some indication of temporary space.

We need 10,000 to 15,000 square feet of space to begin with. Long-term, we'll probably build a facility that's twice or three times that size. But right now we're looking at space on Fowler Avenue, either donated or leased.

Proximity to the university is very important. Eventually we would extend our incubation activity to downtown Tampa and St. Petersburg. But successful incubators at other universities, like RPI (Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute) and Georgia Tech, all started on campus.

Q: Will the USF incubator restrict its tenants to those with a university connection?

Kovac: It will have three layers of involvement.

Obviously, with $170-million of sponsored research every year, the university spins off lots of intellectual property in terms of patents and know-how. It needs an outlet for nurturing companies.

The second layer is any faculty members or grad students with an idea for a company that might not be attached to intellectual property that's been generated on campus but would benefit from being close to the campus.

Then the third layer would be literally anybody in the area who has a high-tech idea for a start-up and can see some synergies with the university as being an asset to their success.

Q: Does that mean it's unlikely for an outsider with no connection to the university to be selected for the incubator?

Kovac: If it's an outside company that sees the importance of having a synergistic relationship with the university, they'd be welcome. If they have no interest in working with the university, it would be less likely. But we'd like to have the problem of having too many people coming to us to be incubated.

Q: What will be offered at USF's incubator?

Kovac: We'll provide a pool of services _ telephone answering, copy, fax, conference rooms, Internet. Plus we'll provide access to pro bono outside services from lawyers, accountants and venture capitalists. We haven't decided whether rent will be subsidized or market rate. Rent is only a very small portion of what these companies need; the real attraction is having the services available.

Our board of advisers will screen applicants, who need to have a well-polished business plan and some sense of their early management team. There may be five to eight companies selected and normally they're given 18 to 36 months at an incubator. If something doesn't hatch by then, it's time to move on and put another egg in there.

Q: Do you have any fear that with the recent tech downturn, you've missed the curve for incubators?

Kovac: No, there will always be room for an incubator to develop the intellectual property that comes out of a research institution like USF. With our college of medicine, Moffitt research center and our marine science department, we have a built-in demand for a place to incubate ideas.

Q: USF has been talking about creating an incubator for several years. What's taken so long?

Kovac: The problem has been finding adequate space. We thought we found space on campus two years ago, then that space disappeared. But we have a new president now, and she has made this a top priority. She's charged us with getting it up and running and promised additional resources.

Q: What do you expect it will cost to open and maintain USF's incubator?

Kovac: We received a $1-million endowment from Dan Doyle (founder of Danka), and we'll be using the proceeds from that, of about $50,000 per year. There will be some university funds to support the initial personnel and get things going. In terms of maintenance and personnel, I'd expect it would cost $400,000 to $600,000 per year to run.

Q: Will USF's incubator primarily be interested in turning more of the university's research into revenue?

Kovac: The main purpose is not to make money but for the university to carry out its mission to provide intellectual capital to help generate economic development and local wealth.

In Silicon Valley, 50 percent of the GNP can be traced to Stanford professors and graduates. And that's because in the 1950s and 1960s, Stanford established a sense of entrepreneurial activities.

USF does have intellectual property that has patents, and we do expect to make money from those patents. But the primary focus of the incubator will be to create an infrastructure to generate new companies.

Q: Do you envision the USF incubator as being separate from an incubator that's being developed in downtown Tampa by a group of community leaders?

Kovac: That's what we're discussing right now. Certainly, USF would want to be a key player in any downtown incubator, but what configuration that involvement would take is yet to be seen.

_ Kris Hundley can be reached at hundleysptimes.com or at (727) 893-2996.

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