USF's Peter Betzer has used both academic and political acumen to build a powerhouse marine program -- and has capped his tenure with a big high-tech partnership with a Silicon Valley firm.
Six years later, the center has blossomed into a top site for the development of sophisticated underwater sensors, including tiny mass spectrometers that can be used to detect explosives. Betzer says such devices will revolutionize port security, allowing authorities to search through giant cargo containers with minimal disruption and in a fraction of the time required by more conventional methods. The innovation may be the first technology that SRI takes to the marketplace.
Betzer is also excited about the 3-D scanning systems his researchers have invented that create vivid pictures of what lies beneath the murkiest of waters. And he's proud of the acoustic device that researcher Jim Locascio devised to analyze underwater sounds. Recently, when residents of Cape Coral wondered about a strange low noise they heard resonating through their homes, Locascio determined it was the mating call of the Black Drum, a giant fish that lives in nearby canals.
Former graduate student Mike Morris says Betzer couples an ability to generate excitement about research with his network of business contacts. In 1989, when Morris needed funding to jump-start research he was doing for a cost-reimbursable innovation grant he'd received from the Department of Energy, Betzer contacted managers he knew at SouthTrust Bank and persuaded them to give Morris a $50,000 credit line to work on developing a miniature spectrometer to investigate how much CO2 is being absorbed into the oceans as a result of global warming. Morris' research was a success, resulting in the creation of a company called Ocean Optics, which he sold in 2004 for $50 million.
A chance meeting
In 2004, Carole Steele, whom Betzer had hired to head business development for the college's Center for Ocean Technology, had a chance conversation at a convention in Texas with a man sitting next to her. Without seeing his name tag, she told him that USF's College of Marine Science was doing big things with its sensor technology and hoped to commercialize it. She said she liked the SRI model that had grown out of Stanford University. The man turned out to be Peter Marcotullio, the business development director for SRI.
After some initial discussions, Betzer began tapping his network of political and business leaders, including Rep. Young and former Progress Energy President and CEO Bill Habermeyer, to help iron out the deal. Enterprise Florida warned Betzer not to let the selection of SRI's headquarters become a political football as had the site for Scripps Florida. At a meeting with Mayor Baker, Betzer suggested an old city-owned warehouse adjacent to Albert Whitted Municipal Airport downtown near the USF campus. Baker told Betzer: "If you can get SRI, you can have that building."
SRI has already created economic ripples in St. Petersburg. Coda Octopus, a 3-D sonar-imaging company with offices in Europe and the United States, set up shop in St. Petersburg last May when it heard SRI might be coming. Betzer expects others will follow. Historically, SRI generates about one spinoff company every three years, with a typical initial public offering of more than $500 million. In its 60 years, the company has an 80% success rate with new research and development technology transfers.
Betzer, meanwhile, has yet to decide exactly how he'll spend his retirement years. He says he's been thinking a lot about pteropods, tiny winged snails at the bottom of the food chain that are increasingly threatened by the rising levels of carbon dioxide in our upper oceans. Research has concluded that the rising CO2 levels -- a product of pollution -- are raising the acidity of ocean water, Betzer says. The "impending peril" of the pteropods could have big implications for the entire ecosystem. Says Betzer: "I'm tempted to go out there again."