By Marian Rizzo
May 13, 2009 –To step back in time, one need only take a walk through Ocala’s historic district. To get a feel for the future, however, requires a step in a different direction. Just a few blocks from the historic district, the Pensacola-based Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition is getting ready to set up shop in the former Marion County library headquarters.
Current research includes such far-out projects as adjustable autonomy, robotics, and computer-mediated learning systems.
“One of our researchers is actually living in Ocala right now working out of his home, so it’s already started,” said Tim Wright, deputy director. “I imagine the building will be ready for occupancy in August. What we’ll bring to the community is a group of very talented research professionals who do leading-edge research in the areas in which we work.”
Wright described Ocala as a “research rich area,” partly because of its centralized location near several high-powered universities.
Helping the institute get started here is the Florida High Tech Corridor Council with its pledge of $50,000 a year for the next five years.
Headquartered in Heathrow, just north of Orlando, the FHTCC was established in 1996 by the Florida Legislature in response to a vision of administrators at the University of Central Florida and the University of South Florida. They wanted university professionals to team up with private business to promote the development of high tech industry in Central Florida. The resulting program involved 21 counties in the two university systems and 10 different sectors of industry, including medical, aerospace and nanotechnology. In 2005, the University of Florida also came on board, bringing with it two more counties. Marion County is in UCF’s 10-county system.
Since July 1, 2008, the council’s private/public partnerships have involved nearly 275 companies in 920 research projects, said Randy Berridge, president. Funded by the state, the council has put up $48 million that has been matched by more than $550 million from corporate and federal dollars, since the beginning, Berridge said.
“We’ve created over 5,000 jobs in terms of these projects, over the years,” said Berridge. “There is definitely a potential for companies who want to partner with us, for us to help them with our funding to enhance their products and services, to create jobs, as well as opportunities to save jobs.”
Berridge said, as far as he knows, this is the first program of its kind in the nation.
“We basically created the concept in Florida of universities partnering with companies on research projects,” Berridge said. “We think we’re fairly unique to have this process in Florida. It is working in Florida. We’d be honored to serve as a model.”
UCF does about 60 to 70 projects a year, generating $5 million to $7 million in research funding every year, said Dr. Tom O’Neal, spokesperson for the university. UCF’s current matching grant program is just under $2 million, O’Neal said.
“We’ve been helping a lot of companies get funding to do research,” he said. “We’re here to support Marion County, for sure. If a small business comes up with some money, then UCF comes up with money to put on top of that. One of the goals is to create new, innovative stuff, new technologies. The high-value jobs are kept here.”
The Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition may very well be just the beginning. Pete Tesch, president/CEO of the Ocala/Marion County Economic Development Corp., said he would like to see more of that.
“Having a prestigious presence like the Institute for Human and Machine Cognition could set a trend,” said Tesch. “Obviously, Marion County is not a bastion for high-tech companies yet. We haven’t had the resources or assets to take full advantage of that cooperative effort. But, you have companies like Lockheed Martin and Intellon. There are these types of companies that either are using high technology or applicable technology in their industry sectors.
“We are not Silicon Valley or Boston or Palm Beach County, for that matter. But, there are industry sectors and technologies that we believe have a very strong opportunity for commercialization coming out of the university system, particularly UF. Our strategy is learning how to tap into that. And, we are currently working with the FHTCC to help us achieve that. We’re not there yet, but we’re getting in the game.”
While the average small business might not have the resources to get a grant, most could benefit from the research that is already going on, said Dr. Philip Geist, area director for the Florida Small Business Development Center at the University of North Florida.
“I think it’s important, because what they’re doing is they’re pulling together both the high tech businesses and the services and infrastructure that support them,” Geist said. “That helps to create opportunities for new businesses in a technological area where there’s the potential for high growth and high wages.
“What’s happening over all, we’re in a slump at the moment in the economy, but as businesses find ways to globalize, become international, become more efficient, the technology and information technology play an important role in order to be able to do that, certainly, in a cost-effective way.”
Jaye Baillie, president/CEO of the Ocala/Marion County Chamber of Commerce, also envisions a favorable business climate from high-tech research.
“Marion County is fortunate to be included in the mix of 23 counties in the corridor,” Baillie said. “Our strategic location between the three universities provides opportunities for our high-tech businesses to apply for FHTCC matching funds.
“Another great tool they provide is the virtual entrepreneurial center, a great Web-based tool for local entrepreneurs to find information and services for startup or existing businesses,” she said.
“The FHTCC will be an asset as the chamber launches its economic gardening initiative aimed at surrounding our home-grown businesses with the resources they need to expand.”
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