Can Florida and Tampa Bay join the ranks of innovation leaders?

Hillsborough Commissioner Mark Sharpe says Tampa Bay can be an innovation leader and has a plan to make it happen.
Hillsborough Commissioner Mark Sharpe says Tampa Bay can be an innovation leader and has a plan to make it happen.
Published Jan. 10, 2014

Every state wants to be identified as innovative.

The word conjures unbridled creativity, and in business terms smacks of economic riches, better jobs and prestige.

Some states are really good at it. Washington is awash in big-name innovators like Amazon, Microsoft and Boeing. So is California, with Stanford University and, of course, its Silicon Valley mecca for business startups that produced Google and Facebook among many others. Or Massachusetts, with its powerhouse universities like Harvard and MIT, and the decades of spinoffs such schools have fostered.

That's why these three states are the No. 1, 2 and 3 picks in the country for innovation, based on a recent analysis of a broad range of federal data by Bloomberg News.

Florida trails at No. 23 based on its so-so mix of relatively few science and engineering degrees, recent drops in productivity and only a modest percentage of technology companies among its public corporations.

For a state about to become the country's third largest by population, Florida is an innovation laggard. All the other big-population states — California, Texas, New York, Illinois — rank much higher than Florida.

Maybe it's time to grow up.

In Tampa Bay, nobody wants "Florida" and innovative" to become more than a punch line more than Hillsborough County Commissioner Mark Sharpe. In late December, after seeing Bloomberg's ranking of innovative states, he posted on Twitter: "Florida's quest must be to dominate this category."

Now that's ambition.

Sharpe argues that Tampa Bay and Florida can rise in the innovation ranks. He has a plan.

1) "Attract the best companies to Florida," he says.

There are signs that is happening with the state luring firms renowned for their innovation, including Scripps Research in Jupiter, Draper Lab in Tampa and St. Petersburg, SRI in St. Petersburg, and more recently Bristol-Myers Squibb in Tampa, among other examples.

2) "Support our nascent startup community," says Sharpe.

That's clearly under way, with a regional burst of business incubators and entrepreneur programs gaining reputation at both USF St. Petersburg and USF Tampa, the University of Tampa and other institutions.

Sharpe has gone further, backing up his political talk with real money. Last year he helped push through Hillsborough County the Economic Development Innovation Initiative. Backed with an initial $2 million, the so-called EDI2 aims to help drive the growth of technology and innovative startups and scale-worthy small businesses in the area.

Is $2 million a game changer? It's chicken feed. The real message of EDI2 is that Hillsborough acknowledges the county needs to help financially support innovative business startups — just as the county spends taxpayer money to lure existing businesses here from afar with hefty incentive packages.

3) "Emphasize STEAM" is Sharpe's third leg of his innovation stool.

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That's a twist on the better-known approach to science, technology, engineering and math education, commonly known as STEM. Adding an "A" for the arts makes it STEAM.

• • •

It all sounds promising so far. But are these actions enough to gain the momentum required to pass other states already ranked higher than Florida on the innovation scale?

Like most other lofty goals, it will take perseverance and time if Florida ever hopes to attain the title as one of the country's truly innovative states.

On such quests, the state can be its own worst enemy. Often Florida may as well be dubbed the "Attention Deficit Disorder State" for its tendency to drop one ambition for some other hot button du jour.

"Technological innovation is a key factor — if not the key factor — in economic growth and job generation," regional economist Richard Florida wrote online this past week for the Atlantic magazine. "But in today's knowledge economy, the capacity to innovate and generate new high-tech industries and jobs is much more concentrated and clustered in some places than others."

Some economic leaders here believe Tampa Bay can become such a metro area.

Rick Homans, head of the Tampa Hillsborough Economic Development Corp., is a believer. And he may be staking his career on it with his "MediFuture"-branded push to revolutionize the region's health care/medical industry into an internationally recognized center of innovation.

Former Moffitt Cancer Center chief Bill Dalton believes the M2Gen spinoff he now runs in Tampa can innovatively accelerate the delivery of "personalized medicine" in the fight against cancer.

USF professor Yogi Goswami makes Tampa Bay more innovative by his research to capture solar energy using clusters of salt balls.

Serial entrepreneur Mark Swanson, co-founder of Telovations, a cloud-based business communications service, preaches the virtues of innovation to area startups.

In a key measure of innovation, USF ranks 15th worldwide among top universities producing new U.S. patents.

There are many innovators here. But can they help Tampa Bay gain a critical mass?

Tampa intellectual property lawyer Chris Paradies predicts 2014 and 2015 will be critical years for this region to get its act together on the innovation front. Paradies chairs the Tampa Bay Innovation Center, which manages a growing bevy of area business incubators. He also advises Sharpe's Hillsborough's EDI2 initiative.

At this rate, "innovation" may prove to be this region's buzzword of the year.

Whether it will become more than a buzzword remains to be seen.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at