September 2, 2014

Editor's Page

Florida's talent pool is too lightweight

Mark R. Howard | 6/18/2013

Some numbers:

» Florida, with the nation’s fourth-largest economy, has about 18,600 Ph.D. scientists and engineers in its public and private sectors combined. That’s a big number, but as a share of the overall state workforce, it puts Florida behind 48 states, ahead of only Arkansas and Nevada. To get into the top five, Florida needs to have at least 37,000 Ph.D.s.

» Florida has about 10,000 “Carnegie-class, high-research” professors at its major universities. To get to an “average” faculty-student ratio, it should have at least 16,000.

» Florida ranks 15th among states in spending on research and development.

» Florida companies attracted five venture capital deals worth $11.3 million in the first three months of 2013, the second-lowest quarterly total since 1995. The state ranks 29th in the U.S. in VC investments in that period.

The bottom line: Our research talent pool is too shallow, and support for potentially transformative businesses is too meager. In terms of scientific and technical punching power, Florida is a Mike Tyson-sized contender who hits like Pee-wee Herman.

The state should want to do better. Research and the economic activity that flows from it are the foundation for a healthier, less service-driven economy for the state. Every higher-tech business not only employs scientists, but also supports all manner of higher-wage workers, from lawyers to MBAs to tech workers. Each 1% increase in the portion of the population with advanced degrees translates into a $1,900 increase in per capita personal income for everybody.

All those numbers come courtesy of the Florida Research Consortium, a public-private partnership created in 2001. The consortium is an information clearinghouse that advises legislators and the governor on the state of research in Florida. The group also tries to maintain a semblance of coordination among existing research efforts at state universities and private institutions like Torrey Pines, Burnham and Scripps. “We look for opportunities to put Miami in the same room as Orlando,” says Jack Sullivan, the consortium’s CEO.

Sullivan heads a lean effort — basically him and a volunteer board of directors from business, government and public and private universities. (Full disclosure: Florida Trend’s publisher, Andy Corty, serves on the board, but he didn’t suggest that I write on this topic.) One-man band or not, the consortium has done an admirable job of collecting data, creating benchmarks and outlining goals and policies.

A real commitment to research would include better long-term support for higher education and business incubation centers. Perhaps the boldest thing the state could do would be to create a venture funding pool, at least $1 billion, to back technical and scientific research and businesses.

The state hasn’t been totally derelict. Since 2002, Florida has spent $84.5 million to fund “Centers of Excellence” — specific, targeted research at various universities. It’s a nice gesture, but basically amounts to a backdoor way to throw a few more dollars at the state’s research universities.

And it pales next to what other states are doing. Since 2005, for example, the Texas Emerging Technology Fund has made 167 awards to companies totaling $370 million. The state ends up with equity positions in the companies. Once a firm is on its feet (some firms fail), the state cashes out, and the return on investment goes back into the fund. Meanwhile, Ohio has a $2.3-billion program called Third Frontier that provides funding for companies, universities and other groups that generate technology-based products and jobs.

The problem, of course, with creating a big venture fund in Florida is Florida itself, and the inevitable competition for resources among universities and city-states that never look beyond their own interests. In Florida, $100 from a tech fund likely ends up in 10 mediocre $10 investments rather than in fewer, bigger chunks that would have more impact overall.

So here’s a modest proposal. Create a big fund, forget kumbaya and let the regions and the universities compete, with awards made by a group like the research consortium whose decisions would have creditability with everybody.

But only fund collaborative efforts that engage a substantial group of stakeholders. Nobody gets a dime unless he raises, locally, at least as much as he wants the state fund to chip in. So if USF wants the state fund to help create an endowed professorship for a hot-shot medical researcher, for example, then the school needs local businesses, economic development organizations, community and education foundations, venture capital firms, independent research groups like SRI — even another research university from another area — to pony up at least half the overall tab.

For Florida to generate momentum to build its research base, the full range of stakeholders, public and private, must understand the value of research to both the local and state economies — and be willing to invest.

When UCF started its medical school, it provided a model for this kind of collaboration by enlisting the business community to fund scholarships for the entire first class. The med school effectively communicated the relevance of research to business, and the business community responded with a tangible investment in the school’s success.

Florida has too many economic centers to ever function as one big, happy place. It can, however, use some of the regions’ competitive spirit to the benefit of all.

Tags: Editor's column, Research & Development

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