The University of Florida said last week that it will use an $8.2 million grant from the federal Economic Development Administration to create the Florida Innovation Hub, a single facility near UF's Gainesville campus that will link the school's technology-commercialization efforts with a company incubator function.
According to a university official, the Innovation Hub is expected to speed tech transfer at UF primarily through new venture formation, and in turn feed economic development in the Gainesville area through new job creation.
The new 45,000-square-foot facility, to which UF will also contribute $5 million, is scheduled for completion by December 2011, and will house not only wet- and dry-lab space and offices for fledgling UF startup companies, but also the UF Office of Technology Licensing and the UF Tech Connect, an EDA-sponsored program that aids in company creation.
The Innovation Hub will also incorporate existing and new programs, such as entrepreneurial education and mentoring for UF faculty and students; investment and government grant workshops; and alumni-giving networks to create what university officials are calling a "super incubator."
UF already has an affiliate incubator facility: the Sid Martin Biotech Incubator in nearby Alachua, Fla., which is focused exclusively on life sciences-related ventures. The university said that the new Innovation Hub will be used to nurture UF startups much in the same way, but will have the added benefit of also housing the university's major commercialization functions.
"Tech transfer is a contact sport," Jane Muir, associate director of the UF OTL, told BTW this week. "It's about people talking to people and building relationships — whether it's an entrepreneur with a scientist or an investor. By creating this hub where all these elements of new company creation come together, it's going to expedite technology commercialization."
Unlike the Sid Martin Biotech Incubator, the Innovation Hub will support new venture formation in technology areas other than life sciences. Still, the hub will be very active in the bio space: Muir said that UF spends about $600 million on research annually, about half of which is associated with the university's Health Science Center, which generates about 300 new discoveries yearly.
"This is not just an incubator. The facility will have an incubator component, but what will make it unique is that it will house commercialization facilities," including the OTL, which has a full-time staff of 20 people, Muir said.
"The second and equally important component will be incorporating activities, such as an entrepreneurial mentoring program," she added. "We are looking to tap into our alumni network in the Gainesville area. People who go [to UF] want to give back, and … we will match them up with entrepreneurs."
Further, the hub will look to "tap into students and their creativeness," Muir said. "We will also have entrepreneurial programs to educate our faculty, and networking events to connect them with VCs and angel investors." It will also contain offices to help entrepreneurial faculty and emerging companies land government grants such as Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer grants.
"This will be a 45,000-square-foot facility, and [OTL] will occupy about 5,000 [square feet] of that," Muir said. "The majority of the space will be for new startup companies, and a lot of space will be used for these events and functions."
Muir said the incubator will likely take on tenants besides UF spinouts, "but they will need to be affiliated with the university in some way." She also said that the hub will consider housing offices for venture capitalists and angel investors who are interested in collaborating with UF on company formation. "In fact, we have already received inquiries about space from some investors," Muir said, without elaborating.
UF has not necessarily struggled to create new companies based on its innovations, life sciences or other: According to statistics reported by the university to the Association of University Technology Managers, UF spun out nine companies in 2007 (the most recent year for which data are available), ranking it seventh among reporting institutions. And in 2006 it spun out 10 companies, which also placed it among the most prolific institutions in this category.
Muir said that many of these companies have remained local or in the state, but a fair share have also relocated to more venture-rich areas such as Boston or the San Francisco Bay area. "At the end of day, they need to go where they need to go," she said.
Despite its startup prowess, however, the university can always do more, Muir said, especially given the role that spinout companies can play in regional economic development.
"We think we're getting pretty good at figuring out what it takes to create companies," Muir said. "But if we can bring in other key components, such as investors and entrepreneurs … basically it's 'How can we do more of what we've been doing better and faster?'"
UF qualified for the EDA funding through the agency's second nationwide supplemental appropriation of $400 million to support long-term economic recovery to regions affected by natural disasters in 2008. Specifically, UF qualified because of Tropical Storm Fay, which blew directly through Gainesville and the surrounding area last year, causing an estimated $195 million in damage to Florida, according to the National Hurricane Center.
Muir said that UF also had a leg up in landing funding because it had successfully partnered with EDA before on several economic-development initiatives, including the Tech Connect program, an EDA university center for which funding was renewed this year for three years; and Florida Biologix, a biomanufacturing operating unit of UF's EDA-supported Center for Regenerative Health Biotechnology, also in Alachua.
"Because we had a number of grants from EDA, we felt we were in good standing with them and knew what they were looking for," Muir said.