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Celebrating Tampa Bay's growing business innovation: Three case studies

University of Tampa’s new Innovation and Collaboration Building opened last week. 
University of Tampa’s new Innovation and Collaboration Building opened last week. 
Published Sep. 4, 2015

Tampa Bay's desire to encourage innovation and entrepreneurial spirit continues to gain ground.

In St. Petersburg, a designated Innovation District that incorporates USF St. Pete, the university's dynamic marine science resources, the combined medical muscle of Johns Hopkins' All Children's Hospital and Bayfront Health and a host of startup activities is starting to take organized shape. Another Innovation District to reinvigorate the area around USF Tampa is backed by the university, Moffitt Cancer Center, Busch Gardens and area hospitals, among others. Downtown Tampa's proposed growth via mega-projects proposed by Jeff Vinik, Port Tampa Bay and others is potentially dazzling.

The fresh momentum is economically impressive and, for this metro area, reinforces the notion that better things are possible. Here are examples of just three efforts among many to keep the positive pedal to the metal.

Build it and they will come

Never a slacker when promoting the region's entrepreneurial ecosystem, the University of Tampa this past week put its money where its mouth is, opening a brand new Innovation and Collaboration Building on its Tampa campus.

"This came about from a vision of many, including (UT) president Ron Vaughn to those teaching entrepreneurship," says Rebecca White. She's the James W. Walter Distinguished Chair of Entrepreneurship and director of UT's Entrepreneurship Center, but beyond all that she is one of the key leaders helping instill this metro area with a startup culture that encourages and supports the creation and growth of innovative businesses.

"We want to position the university and Tampa as thought leaders in how we educate and build an entrepreneurial mind-set," she told me.

The new building speaks volumes. Located at the corner of Kennedy Boulevard and N Boulevard, the eight-story structure features, in addition to basic administrative and academic functions, a home for the John P. Lowth Entrepreneurship Center, and four floors of parking accessed by a bridge over North A Street for a total of 213,000 square feet.

The building adds 511 classroom seats for students, 31 faculty offices, 386 parking spaces and 10 student gathering areas.

White says the building was designed with various teaching methods in mind, including mentoring, entrepreneurs in residence and even offices for potential investors to talk money. There's also space for cybersecurity learning, apprenticeship arrangements and a quiet zone for sheer reflection.

UT already has 250 students who major or minor in entrepreneurship and 500 who take related courses. Not bad for a school of 8,000.

Now watch it grow. Says White: "We want to build a community here and in the greater Tampa Bay ecosystem." Maybe that's why it's called an innovation and collaboration building.

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Driverless in Tampa

Writing about the future of transportation and commuting can be a precarious topic. Everyone has strong opinions. Why write so much about mass transit and light rail systems in our future, some critics ask me. We'll all be traveling in driverless cars soon enough.

I wish it were true. The reality is, driverless cars may be coming along quickly enough, but the public infrastructure to support them still has a long way to go.

Still, it was very cool last summer to see Tampa on the cutting edge of testing driverless cars. The Lee Roy Selmon Expressway, which connects Tampa and Brandon, was one of the first 10 approved sites in this country where researchers can study the safety and performance of automated vehicles. That's exactly what happened last summer when the Audi car company tried out its latest driverless car in real road conditions that included a traffic jam to test the Sport Quattro Laserlight's 22 sensors. Gov. Rick Scott even took one of the first rides.

At the time, Florida was one of only three states to permit the testing of self-driving cars on public roads.

Tampa Hillsborough Expressway Authority planning director Bob Frey says the next phase would continue to fine-tune how driverless cars could operate safely. The authority is seeking a federal transportation grant to help fund additional research but, as Frey stresses, there is no guarantee that grant will be won. We should know more later this fall.

And it all started with a grouper

Hard to believe that it was only early this year that a couple of Ph.D. lab guys at USF's College of Marine Science were unveiling a device dubbed GrouperChek that could verify if that fish advertised (and priced) as grouper was indeed grouper. Since then, the commercial possibilities of the duo of John Paul, USF Marine Sciences distinguished university professor, and microbiologist Robert Ulrich seem to be expanding rapidly.

"It's been an interesting voyage," says Paul, who continues to teach while working to commercialize a testing business.

The two created a business called PureMolecular LLC and have relocated from USF to space at the Tampa Bay Research Center near Roosevelt Boulevard in St. Petersburg. Paul says the demand to verify seafood remains strong, especially the capability of his genetic testing device to tell farm-raised shrimp from the preferred wild-caught shrimp. They are often intermixed, he says.

But the startup's creation of a portable testing device already is catching on in new arenas. Paul says the firm was asked to design a way to identify avian flu. And there's even an effort starting to involve lifeguards in testing the quality of beach water, and a GrouperChek request specifically to be able to test for Red Tide.

PureMolecular is also talking to venture capitalists who, Paul says, are interested in the portable genetic testing possibilities. He's hopeful a deal can be struck soon to inject enough capital into PureMolecular to take it to the next level.

"It's a smorgasbord," Paul says of the growing options for testing. "We're not always sure where we are going," he laughs. "But we are getting there at a rapid pace."

Contact Robert Trigaux at rtrigaux@tampabay.com.

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