Our sights are set on industry clusters

  • August 24, 2014
  • /   William Rabb
  • /   community
Groups Shot of Studer Employees

Clusters of industry work, economic experts say, because they feed off each other and build a critical mass of skilled workers and suppliers that support each other, easily attracting similar operations. Pensacola city and Chamber officials say they are actively pursuing a number of clusters, including aerospace and technology industries. ST Aerospace is a prime example, said Scott Luth, vice president for economic development at the Greater Pensacola Chamber of Commerce. That success story is partly the result of a decision that airport authorities made to not build a parallel runway, but open up more land for commercial development. Another example is an unnamed aerospace supply corporation that will be the first company to build in the Pensacola Technology Campus downtown, vacant for more than three years. The supplier’s 70,000-square-foot facility will be funded largely by Space Florida, the state’s aerospace economic development agency, and could eventually house up to 300 workers, according to news reports. Other companies are in the works, but local officials say they can’t disclose them at this time. But nearby Baldwin County, Ala., is building a 3,000-acre industrial park, known as a megasite, near Bay Minette. The site, not far from another huge park in north Mobile County, is nestled between Interstate 65 and a rail line and is aimed at attracting suppliers for Airbus and for the automobile manufacturers that now dot the landscape across Alabama. Baldwin County officials made the site possible by spending $32 million in 2012 to purchase the land. Such a site will undoubtedly lead to spinoff companies and jobs for Pensacolians, but it’s also more competition for attracting industry to the Panhandle, Luth said. Pensacola has worked similar site deals, but on a much smaller scale. Escambia County spent almost $2 million to buy 600 acres in Santa Rosa County so it can be swapped with the U.S. Navy for a helicopter-training field. The Navy’s existing field in Beulah can then be used for a commerce park that will house another expansion for Navy Federal Credit Union’s burgeoning campus. That park could eventually hold as many as 4,000 jobs, according to news reports. Other sites are in the works and can’t be disclosed, chamber leaders said. But can Pensacola do more to carve out a niche? The Palm Beach, Tampa and Orlando communities built biomedical clusters around research universities and the existing supply of scientists and grad students. University of West Florida is considered a regional university and has only one doctoral degree program, in education. That means it does not have the science and engineering graduate and post-doctoral students that some high-tech companies need, nor does it have the tech incubators and venture capital pipelines that major research universities put in place long ago, said Michael Huggins, interim dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at UWF. “That’s just not who we are,” Huggins said. “Our focus is getting undergraduates ready for the job market, or for a graduate school that is at the research level.”

A robotics hub?

The Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, famous for its groundbreaking research into robotics, is one great advantage Pensacola has. What would it take to build a cluster of robotics companies around IHMC? “We would welcome the chamber to exploit our presence in Pensacola to help attract new technology organizations,” said IHMC Director CEO Ken Ford. “That said, recruiting top-level technology companies is not easy and the old-school incentives are rarely effective.” Instead, Ford suggested providing better support for homegrown firms and spinoff companies. IHMC has one such spinoff. Robotics Unlimited, started by IHMC researcher Sebastien Cotton, has developed a running robot, which can move along the ground on two legs at up to 20 mph for two hours. It will be marketed as a toy or as the perfect pacing device for long-distance human runners. So far, the company has raised about a third of the $150,000 it needs to get started on manufacturing, said Cotton. “It would be great to see more incentives for startup tech companies,” Cotton said. “That is one of the big issues, finding funding for starting companies like ours.” Besides Space Florida, the state also offers the Florida Institute, which provides up to $300,000 in seed money for commercialization of public research. But those organizations make awards to only a few companies each year. With a larger, local pool of startup funding, it would not be hard to attract more top scientists and engineers to the Pensacola area, Cotton said. “We love it here.” And Cotton should know about nice places to live: He’s from the south of France and has had opportunities to work all around the globe.

Private sector support key here

To a large extent, the private sector has nurtured the fledgling tech industry in the Pensacola area. Innovation Coast, a group organized by Avalex Technologies, email and web security provider AppRiver and other local technology companies, is hosting the Innovation Awards this November, with a top prize of $100,000 going to the entrepreneur with the best business plan for a tech-based startup. Winners will receive expert coaching and exposure to other potential investors. “The idea is to build a critical mass of tech people here,” said Tad Ihns, founder and CEO of Avalex, the Gulf Breeze-based firm that makes high-definition recording and surveillance equipment and software for the military and law enforcement. “Without that critical mass, it’s hard to attract enough top people and capable workers.” Instead of giving a big incentive to lure one company with, say, 600 jobs, the Innovation Coast group advocates helping 60 smaller companies with at least 10 jobs each. To market the area, the group supplies contact cards to hotels, encouraging vacationing tech people to consider locating here. “There are so many great things in this community,” Ihns said. “But if we don’t raise our profile, people aren’t going to notice.”
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