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Center's director will lead venture

Larry Langebrake, leader of a University of South Florida center that develops sophisticated ocean technology, will direct the new high-tech marine science venture that was announced in St. Petersburg this week.

Langebrake runs USF's Center for Ocean Technology, which was formed to help the college's marine science professors create the technology needed for research above and below the sea.

This center so impressed the nonprofit Silicon Valley research firm SRI International that the organization now plans a partnership with the university. The new SRI-St. Petersburg will develop and market products for environmental science and port security, in close partnership with the university.

Langebrake is moving with about 40 people - roughly two-thirds of the staff - from the Center for Ocean Technology to SRI-St. Petersburg.

USF marine science dean Peter Betzer, who is credited with turning the College of Marine Science into a leading institution in its field, praised Langebrake as someone eminently qualified for the job.

Langebrake has undergraduate and graduate degrees in electrical engineering and has worked at USF since 1994. Betzer said Langebrake once took vacation time from a previous job so he could accompany a university research team to the Antarctic Ocean and help keep the scientific instruments operating.

Betzer said he remembers one of the scientists saying: "It's the first time I went out on a cruise where the stuff worked the whole time."

But removing Langebrake and two-thirds of the staff at the Center for Ocean Technology raises another question: What will become of the center?

Betzer said the center will undoubtedly change its emphasis to avoid duplicating work being done at SRI-St. Petersburg, which is expected to focus heavily on sensors used in environmental science and on systems for improving port security.

He said it's likely that the center will move into such challenges as developing powerful computer technology that can process the complex images and other data collected by sensors underwater. But the center would still continue to help professors create the hardware they need for their experiments, Betzer said, including some under contract with the Office of Naval Research and other institutions.

In addition to its main focus on marine science, SRI also will look into some other local research opportunities. It will study ways of using technology to help elderly people live independently and pharmaceutical development.

More details emerge

According to details of the agreement, some of which were released Friday, the city and the county have some recourse should SRI leave St. Petersburg prematurely. If SRI leaves the city or its $1-a-year lease is terminated, the city and the county will share use of the SRI facility for 10 years, according to the agreement. The property then could be used for city and county office space or leased to a new tenant.

After 10 years, the city - which owns the land - would assume total control.

SRI will receive $20-million from Florida for operating costs. According to its contract with the state, the money will be disbursed over five years, with an initial allotment of $6-million. SRI will have to file an audited annual report with the state and meet certain employment milestones before subsequent payments are made. SRI also has agreed to give the state 20 percent of its royalties until it has repaid a total of $12.8-million.

The city and SRI also have begun preliminary design of the new facility, which will have four stories and at least 30,000 square feet to start, according to the agreement.

The building will include a 4,000-square-foot engineering lab as well as 6,000 square feet for marine operations. The building will be constructed to house as many as 100 workers and be built so that it can be expanded an additional 65,000 square feet.

It also will include space for the port security center that Betzer is hoping to create.

The first phase of the building will be built by the city, using $10-million from the state and the county, but designs must be approved by SRI.

City sees potential

The city and the community see SRI's arrival as another step toward building St. Petersburg into a marine sciences hub.

They point to a former European company that's already moved its operations here.

Underwater imaging company CodaOctopus has made St. Petersburg its operational home largely because of the university's Center for Ocean Technology.

The school is using CodaOctopus imaging products in developing its port and underwater scanning technology.

"We've set up a base here for future growth," said Tony Parker, the company's vice president for the Americas. "We may have been the first. But I'm sure we won't be the last. There's a need for it, and I'm sure that's why SRI is coming. They saw the void."