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UF joins regional high-tech recruiters

The influential University of Florida this week joined state universities in Tampa and Orlando in a regional group dedicated to expanding technology-based jobs across central Florida.

The regional Florida High Tech Corridor Council has operated since 1996 with the twin-tower academic and research support of Tampa's University of South Florida and Orlando's University of Central Florida.

The University of Florida's addition to the corridor council is a major coup for a central Florida high-tech economy playing catchup with the big players. With UF, the council wins an expanded role as matchmaker between universities and those area companies seeking research expertise and willing to put up matching funds to get it.

Nor does it hurt UF one bit _ distant in Gainesville from Florida's business-laden metropolitan centers _ to join an economic development group with deep industry ties reaching from the Tampa Bay area and Orlando east to the so-called Space Coast.

To some, adding the University of Florida to the council is like inviting the 800-pound gorilla to dinner. It can sit where it wants and eat what it wants. Not only is UF the state's flagship university, it is an economic powerhouse, a $470-million research enterprise that boasts industry expertise from A to Z.

"People tend to think of MIT or Stanford, but we are there with the big boys," says Win Phillips, UF's vice president of research and a former dean of the engineering school.

The good news is the combined research and financial horsepower of UF, USF and UCF become more accessible for area companies seeking specific research. The bad news is all of UF's immense clout _ clients range from Mitsubishi and GM to NASA and Oak Ridge Laboratories _ might seem daunting to its university peers. UF gets tens of millions in royalties every year just from developing Gatorade.

Tampa's USF worried for years that if its larger Gainesville rival was invited to join the corridor council, it would cherry-pick Tampa Bay's best business resources and hurt USF's efforts to build a biotech business cluster in this area. USF president Judy Genshaft resisted UF's membership for years.

Ultimately, those concerns were not enough to prevent the three university presidents, along with Florida High Tech Corridor Council president Randy Berridge, from agreeing that central Florida's high-tech economy has more to gain by collaborating in one organization.

Let the competition begin, suggests UF's Phillips. It will only make the area economy sharper and stronger.

"If we are doing something in your way that you can do better, then do it," he tells other universities. "We have more to do than we can do."

Phillips likened UF and the expanding corridor council to earlier efforts to build regional high-tech hubs by Boston's MIT in the Northeast Corridor, or by Wake Forest and the University of North Carolina in backing that state's Research Triangle.

Indeed, some Tampa Bay tech business leaders were pleased Tuesday to hear UF was a member of the corridor council and a new resource. After all, they said, it's far better to have UF in the regional fold than competing on its own or _ worse _ conceivably signing on with some other regional economic group in the state.

"The more we can do to promote regional economic development, the better off we will be," insists George Gordon, CEO of the Tampa tech firm Enporion and president of the Tampa Bay Technology Forum. "UF brings lots of talent and technology to that effort."

The arrival of the University of Florida expands to 23 the number of counties in the corridor council. Joining the list are Alachua and Putnam counties. The combined area is just about the size of California's Silicon Valley.

UF will join USF and UCF in pledging $2-million annually in the corridor council's matching grant research program. Since the council started, that program has generated more than $128-million in applied research in targeted industries ranging from aviation and aerospace to medical technology, microelectronics and optics and photonics.

The bulk of those funds has been used in more than 500 projects employing area graduate and doctoral students, research assistants and faculty members in research with scientists and engineers from 215 companies.

The bottom line? When area graduate students get hired by area tech companies to conduct research, businesses get to see what young workers can do. Some get hired along the way. At the same time, university researchers get a better feel for higher-wage technology job opportunities in the central Florida area. And that's one more way to discourage young, well-educated adults from leaving the state in search of more vibrant high-tech communities.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigauxsptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.

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