Florida Polytechnic University Pushes Academic Incubator Idea

In Lakeland, Florida Polytechnic University wants to create a hi-tech research park on the college’s campus, with the goal of bringing together academics and private companies to share facilities, trigger innovation and boost jobs.

by Kevin Bouffard, The Ledger / April 1, 2019
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(TNS) — Local officials are working toward creating a hi-tech research park at Florida Polytechnic University that would marry academics with private companies to serve as an incubator for new products and technologies and the jobs they would create in Polk County.

The research park seeks to create a collaborative environment among Florida Poly faculty and students with private companies and public entities that would share facilities, said Randy Avent, the university president.

"We call it 'creative collisions,' " he said. "We want to create the type of environment that leads to more innovations."

The concept envisions researchers from private and public entities sharing buildings and facilities with Florida Poly faculty and students while all work on the same goals and technologies, Avent said. In addition to working in their own facilities, they would share common spaces, such as a break room, a coffee shop or a food truck parked outside.

That gives them a social space to talk about their own work and the problems they've encountered, he added. Such interactions could result in a learning experience for students and faculty and solutions for their professional colleagues.

"When you're getting all three together, you're getting much better solutions to problems," Avent said.

All three could collaborate on taking those solutions from the lab to the market, he said.

That last step would contribute to local economic development, said Sean Malott, CEO of the Central Florida Development Council, the county's primary business development organization.

"This will be a major factor in local economic growth," he said.

It would also address one of Polk's chief economic challenges — stemming the brain drain of highly educated and skilled workers generated by Florida Poly and other local colleges and universities leaving for companies outside the county and state, Malott said.

"It's another tool in the toolbox to keep graduates here in Polk County," he said. "This will keep hi-tech workers in Polk County."

Avent and Malott will lead a delegation of about 40 local public and private officials to Raleigh, North Carolina, on April 24-26 to get an up-close look at the Centennial Campus at North Carolina State University, the model for the research park Avent wants to create at Florida Poly.

Avent knows the Centennial Campus well because he worked there as the associate vice chancellor of research and a professor of computer science at North Carolina State before he took the Florida Poly post in 2014.

The trip's purpose is to get Polk's government and business leaders on the same page regarding the Florida Poly research park, which will require substantial public and private financial support, Malott said.

The project will need buy-in from the state and local communities, particularly the cities bordering Florida Poly, including Lakeland, Polk City and Auburndale, he said.

"In theory, we all want the same thing, but there could be minor differences," Malott said. "We want to support Dr. Avent's vision."

'A Private Development'

And support from the Polk business community is also important, as the concept behind the park necessitates substantial private investment.

The initial investment to buy land for the research park and build the first facility could range from $50 million to $70 million, estimated Todd Dantzler, a partner at Coldwell Banker Commercial Saunders Ralston Dantzler Realty in Lakeland and president of the Development Council.

Most of that initial investment and subsequent investments would come from a private developer who also shares the vision, Avent and Dantzler agreed.

"I don't think the university needs to be the developer," Dantzler said. "It needs to be a private development."

Avent said he would like to see a private developer buy 500 to 600 acres next to the university and recruit a hi-tech company to build a research facility there. The company would agree to give or lease Florida Poly a substantial part of the building for classrooms, labs and other academic facilities.

"It's difficult to get funding for capital infrastructure" from the Legislature, he added. "We have to think about how to build this university differently."

The Development Council would help market the research park to a private developer willing to make the investment, Dantzler and Malott said.

Florida Poly is surrounded by thousands of acres of undeveloped land, which gives it a significant advantage over other universities looking at a similar venture, Avent said.

Older universities, particularly in urban areas, are land-locked by development that has taken place already, he added.

"To have this much of a blank canvas available for development is a tremendous opportunity," Dantzler said.

Already 'A Known Entity'

The research park may have already seen its first tenant, or at least a magnet for the first tenant.

Florida's Turnpike Enterprise is projected to open its 475-acre SunTrax test track facility later this spring near Florida Poly. It will become a proving ground for autonomous vehicles, toll technology and other advanced highway infrastructure.

Eight faculty and dozens of students will use the $42 million facility to test autonomous-vehicle technology they're developing at the university, Avent said. Because Florida Poly has developed a reputation on autonomous-vehicle research, that first tenant will likely come from that field.

"We've already become a known entity in that area," he said.

In fact, Avent said, he would prefer locating the park between the university's property and SunTrax.

Although that land has several owners, they appear to be eager to sell, he said.

Also a possibility is building the research park on the other side of the campus on 4,500 acres owned by the Williams Companies, a Tulsa energy company that had planned to develop the land for residential, commercial and industrial use, Avent said.

But the company was looking to sell the entire property to a single buyer, and it remains uncertain how much of the property it would be willing to break off for the research park, he said.

Williams officials last year indicated they would consider an offer to sell part of its property, Dantzler said.

A Marathon, Not a Sprint

Florida Poly has discussed with four companies the opportunity to locate a research facility at the park if it is built, said Avent, who declined to identify them. But they won't make a final decision until the land and development issues are resolved.

Avent hopes a deal can be concluded and construction begins in one to two years, he said.

Once the initial development issues are resolved, however, developing the Florida Poly research park to its potential will take a marathon, not a sprint.

"You don't do this unless you're in it for the long haul," said Dennis Kekas, associate vice chancellor for partnerships at North Carolina State and a Centennial Campus manager. "You've got to allow it at least 10 years to get to any critical mass."

The Centennial Campus' first building opened in 1988, and it didn't get its first corporate tenant until three years later.

"It really broke through" in the early 2000s, Kekas said. "Now it's really taking off."

The campus has grown from 385 acres in 1984 to more than 1,300 currently, he said. It has 50 buildings totaling some 6 million square feet.

The Centennial Campus has 76 corporate, government and non-profit tenants and serves as the headquarters for three of the university's 10 colleges — engineering, textiles and veterinary medicine, Kekas said. The tenants and the universities work at 75 research centers and institutes.

When school is in session, the campus serves about 15,000 people daily, including 6,000 employees of tenant partners, he added.

"Proximity is very important," Kekas said. "The philosophy we operate under is that research is a contact sport."

Centennial Campus promotes contacts not only through research and academic facilities but at restaurants, food trucks and other on-campus retail facilities, he said. It also sponsors rock concerts and other events to encourage off-work collaboration.

"It's all about trying to promote people working together for a common cause," Kekas said.

Retail would be part of the Florida Poly research park, Avent said, and perhaps even housing for students and park employees.

Kekas did not have any statistics on the campus' economic impact because North Carolina State does not separate it out from other campuses, he said. But the Centennial Campus web page reports more than 125 startup companies and more than 550 new commercial products sprang from the university and its research.

The campus still has room to grow and could reach 9 million to 12 million square feet of building space in the next decade, Kekas said. He agreed the availability of undeveloped acreage is a major advantage.

"Most universities are land-locked," he said. "They could put up a building or two, but they don't have a thousand acres to build on."

©2019 The Ledger (Lakeland, Fla.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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