A rising tide of collaboration is buoying St. Petersburg's marine industry cluster.
To Larry Langebrake, the past five years must feel like a blur. Or perhaps a wave that continues to build.
The tide of activity has risen, fast.
Prior to 2007, Langebrake led the Center for Ocean Technology at the University of South Florida's College of Marine Science, partly working to attract research companies to Tampa Bay. By January of that year, he was director of SRI International's Marine Technology Program in St. Petersburg, heading an operation that he had actually helped to recruit to the area. Call it a watershed moment. To complement existing players, other marine researchers, state and federal agencies, nonprofits, private enterprises and education efforts have flooded in and remain at crest today—bringing acclaim to the region as a marine industry cluster.
“[The company’s move to St. Petersburg] provided a great avenue for SRI to begin generating intellectual property and technology in the maritime domain,” Langebrake recounts. “USF got an internationally known partner. And it helped [add] another attractive piece to the state's emerging general tech cluster. From every perspective, it was a positive. … So we brought it all together.”
Silicon Valley–based SRI International (founded as the Stanford Research Institute) is an independent, nonprofit research institute conducting client-sponsored research and development for government agencies, commercial businesses, foundations and other organizations. SRI also commercializes its innovations by licensing its intellectual property and creating new ventures. SRI's Marine Technology Program specializes in the study of surface and subsurface marine environments. Those studies involve experiments, research, development, deployment and operations of advanced sensors and their systems. The staff conducts research and engineering in optics, acoustics and assorted related marine sciences. The center also brings together national experts on detecting, preventing, responding to and recovering from terrorist events in the maritime domain.
The impact of SRI-St. Petersburg, though, extends far beyond those disciplines. Such is the role of an economic magnet. Langebrake points to the St. Petersburg Ocean Team, composed of more than 1,400 researchers, engineers and scientists and including, among others, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the International Ocean Institute along with the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Coast Guard. Their presence isn't fully attributable to SRI, of course, but a ground swell has been evident since SRI's arrival.
When SRI arrived in the region, Tampa Bay was touted for great potential. At the time, Curtis R. Carlson, president and CEO of SRI International, commented: “When we decided to broaden our R&D to include marine technology, Florida—and the Tampa Bay area in particular—became the logical choice. The institutional infrastructure is in place, and the broad-based support we have received is already creating momentum and terrific potential for our new operation."
The momentum has stopped.
“I would say all of this activity is part and parcel to the emerging technology cluster in Florida,” says Langebrake these days. “My view is that as the cluster continues to grow, we're beginning to build the foundation of what I would call an ecosystem, where you have the right sorts of business infrastructure.”
Peter Betzer, another former USF leader, agrees. At USF for 37 years, he was dean of the College of Marine Science and now is president of St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership Inc. He labels the marine cluster a “huge economic driver,” one that he could hardly have envisioned even as he became dean in 2000. “I sure hoped for it,” he says, “but I'd be lying if I said I thought it would have gone this far.”
Betzer remembers the late 1980s, when the city of St. Petersburg worked with the state legislature, USF and others to vie for a new national marine science center. The odds were long, but the work paid off in the form of the U.S. Geological Survey's St. Petersburg Coastal and Marine Science Center. Now, that USGS facility is across the street from a Johns Hopkins hospital and near the USF Center for Ocean Technology, SRI and like entities. “There's a wonderful synergy between the medical, marine science and the other research facilities that are there,” he says.
In April, for example, All Children’s Hospital officially became part of the Johns Hopkins Health System, enabling All Children's to benefit from Johns Hopkins' global health resources, including physician training, collaborative research and clinical care. Some of that research involves Johns Hopkins' sensor development program, which can be transferred to embryos, premature babies and children. Because the composition of ocean water is similar in pH and ionic strength to the human body, that research could affect future treatment at All Children's.
In August, a research consortium led by USF's College of Marine Science was awarded more than $11 million through BP’s Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative to continue assessing the impacts of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the Gulf of Mexico’s ocean and coastal ecosystems and to build better ways of predicting damage from future spills. Previously, USF, through its Ocean Circulation Group and its Optical Ocean Laboratory, had played a leading role in tracking the movement of the oil spill through the Gulf.
Abundant collaborative effort. And marine cluster partnerships are possible across the Super Region, adds Betzer, noting: “There are logical kinds of [other] synergies that exist.”
Langebrake, who has expertise in marine technology, ocean sensors and microsystems—but obviously also knows a bit about economic development—contends “marine” and “St. Petersburg” are linked on an international scale: “Absolutely, positively, yes. Now, to try to wrap something quantitative around that, yes; then you're going to get a myriad of answers.”
A myriad of good answers.
St. Petersburg Ocean Team
City of St. Petersburg Planning & Economic Development
Eckerd College Marine Science Program
Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission
Florida Institute of Oceanography
International Ocean Institute
National Marine Fisheries Service
Tampa Bay Estuary Program
The Pier Aquarium
U.S. Coast Guard Sector St. Petersburg
U.S. Geological Survey
USF College of Marine Science
USF Office of Research and Innovation
USF St. Petersburg
Having SRI International in the Super Region brings benefits that go beyond its core mission. A case in point is the SunBay Digital Mathematics research project, targeted at middle school students.
In 2009, the Helios Education Foundation and the Pinellas Education Foundation, in partnership with the Pinellas County School District, funded SRI International and the College of Education at USF St. Petersburg to conduct a one-year pilot study on the use of digital mathematics resources and teacher professional development in Pinellas. The study was launched with the goal of setting the future direction of middle school mathematics education in Pinellas.
Still in effect, the program uses computer applications, Web resources, an interactive SMART Board and group collaboration. The premise is that students build mathematical meaning by thinking critically to solve complex problems and understand proportionality and linear functions in a connected, coherent way. By leveraging technology, students visualize, interact with and analyze mathematical representations (graphs, tables, algebraic expressions) connected to dynamic simulations of real-life phenomena.
Since the project was launched, 18 Pinellas middle school teachers in 10 schools have participated.
“Success in mathematics, particularly algebra in the middle grades, is directly correlated with future success in the learning of advanced mathematics and science,” comments Vivian Fueyo, dean of the College of Education and principal investigator on the project.