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Draper Lab expands Tampa Bay partnerships

Draper Lab CEO Jim Shields, left, and chairman John Gordon have looked beyond Boston for more practical partnerships.
Draper Lab CEO Jim Shields, left, and chairman John Gordon have looked beyond Boston for more practical partnerships.
Published Jan. 15, 2013

Draper Lab, the MIT engineering spinoff from Cambridge, Mass., kicked off 2013 with its top executives emphasizing the growing importance of Tampa Bay in its economic and scientific future.

In a wide-ranging interview, Draper officials cited the proximity to Honeywell in Pinellas County for its Trident missile guidance business, to the closer ties to Special Operations Command at Tampa's MacDill Air Force Base and the rehabilitative work with traumatized soldiers at Tampa's James A. Haley VA Medical Center.

And they praised the deepening partnership with Tampa's University of South Florida — notably a new agreement that promises greater collaboration between the two organizations.

The overall message? Nothing beats a physical presence here. Every one of these relationships is growing stronger because Draper established operations several years ago on both sides of Tampa Bay. The lab already is expanding a bioengineering research facility on Tampa's USF campus that opened in 2009. And Draper bought a St. Petersburg building where it now manufactures "microelectromechanical" systems, better known as MEMS, used to make ever-smaller devices. Draper, with 1,500 employees companywide, has 55 on staff in the two Tampa Bay facilities and is sure to add more in the coming years.

"Whether you guys like it or not," says Draper Lab's enthusiastic CEO James Shields, "we are here to stay."

That endorsement should be music to the ears of this region's business community. Draper ranks among the nation's top research organizations in navigational guidance systems and in making sophisticated devices that are of an ever decreasing size and weight.

Joining Shields in the interview were Draper chairman John Gordon, a retired four-star general and former White House Homeland Security coordinator, as well as company vice president Len Polizotto. We sat down last week at Draper's facility in St. Petersburg to discuss where the nonprofit research firm was heading in a new year marked by an improving economy but also likely cuts to U.S. defense budgets.

Draper chose to look outside its home turf for more practical partnerships because Boston organizations like to do basic research. Draper takes the best available basic research and designs prototypes of devices that solve real-world problems.

"Most of our collaborators think there is a Nobel Prize in their future," Shields says. In Tampa Bay, however, "our collaborators are clinically oriented."

The CEO also volunteered that Draper expanded to Tampa Bay with a "Boston bias" about what quality of worker or intellectual capacity might await the firm. "We do have a tendency in Boston to think we are the center of the universe," Shields says. But Draper "has been pleasantly surprised by the caliber of people we have been able to recruit."

Before 2011, Shields joked, he would have characterized Boston as the "Athens of America" but now feels he must find a new metaphor given the economic implosion of Greece. This year marks Draper's 40th anniversary of its spinoff from MIT.

In other highlights:

• While 90 percent of Draper's operations are tied to national security and space programs, Shields expects that will change as biomedical and energy projects assume about 25 percent of Draper's activities. Draper technology is well positioned to help SOCom as special operations forces gain more importance in the country's military strategy.

• Draper is at work on next-generation guidance and navigation systems (for missiles and for consumer products, like advanced GPS) that may use super-cooled atoms for big leaps in accuracy over today's use of lasers and fiber optics.

• In bioengineering, Draper is building biodegradable platforms that will allow hearts, livers, kidneys and other organs to be replicated. Near term, those organs could be used to test for drug toxicity long before human trials.

Bridging the difficult "gap" between basic research and commercial success is where Draper prospers, licensing its prototypes to commercial manufacturers.

"Venture capitalists call that gap the Valley of Death," says Shields with pride. "And we live there."

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