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High-Water Mark

The Dean and the Deal: Peter Betzer says the SRI deal came together just as his ocean researchers were getting frustrated over the difficulty of transferring their discoveries to the marketplace. [Photo: Mark Wemple]

Peter Betzer

  • Age: 64.
  • Hometown: Delavan, Wisc.
  • Education: B.A., geology from Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisc., 1964; doctorate in chemical oceanography from the University of Rhode Island, 1971.
  • Family: Wife, Susan Betzer, a family physician in St. Petersburg; two grown daughters.
  • Career: 36 years at USF as professor, department chair and dean of the school's College of Marine Science after it was officially created in July 2000.
  • Intro to oceanography: "I was fascinated by the ocean as a little boy. My aunt gave me a book about the sea when I was 8 or 9 years old."
  • Scariest moment at sea: Off Cape Hatteras in graduate school. "It was the perfect storm. The ship felt like it was going to break up."
  • Proudest accomplishment: Establishing the Oceanography Camp for Girls in 1991 to motivate young women to consider scientific careers. The three-week program takes 33 Pinellas County eighth-graders and teams them up with women graduate students, who take the students on a day at sea aboard a research vessel, on coastal field trips and into the laboratory for hands-on research experiences.

In a warm December afternoon in St. Petersburg, the Bayboro Harbor sparkles, the crowd sweats and Peter Betzer beams as he takes the podium before a group assembled outside the Knight Oceanographic Research Center on the campus of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg.

After two years of talks, SRI, the high-powered Silicon Valley-based research firm, is ready to announce a partnership with USF's College of Marine Science. Some 40 marine scientists will become SRI employees; the company, which gave consumers the computer mouse and high-definition television, will commercialize their discoveries and inventions. SRI "is a group that routinely takes technological breakthroughs and turns them into viable businesses," says Betzer, the school's dean. "We're thrilled to be attached to the tiger."

The tiger arrives with some heady advance billing. Former Gov. Jeb Bush says SRI will catapult Florida to the forefront of the nation's marine science research efforts. St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker predicts the deal will create hundreds of high-paying jobs and lead to high-tech spinoffs that employ even more. The partnership will also lead to a new National Center for Marine and Port Security. Funded with $7.3 million in seed money from the federal government, the center will provide sensor and imaging technology for ports around the globe.

Betzer says the partnership came together "just in time" for his team of ocean researchers, who've been frustrated by the difficulty in transferring their discoveries from the laboratory to the marketplace. The deal with SRI, he says, will provide greater access to federal research dollars and sought-after venture capital.

It will also cap a career for Betzer, who's retiring at the end of 2007. Perpetually smiling, the 64-year-old is a skilled persuader and operator in both the academic and political worlds. Over the course of his 36 years at the school, Betzer has cultivated a set of influential friends and allies who have helped him transform USF's marine science division from a ho-hum academic department with a nice view of Tampa Bay into a respected marine complex incorporating six agencies and employing more than 700 people.

"Some people in academia, especially in the sciences, tend to stick pretty close to what they know best, but Peter's also been pretty active in the community in other ways," says Peter "Rudy" Wallace, a St. Petersburg lawyer and former Florida House speaker who has known Betzer for nearly 25 years. "He's active on the board of directors of the Florida orchestra; he's very interested in politics; he's a master swimmer. He has a network there. Part of his skill is he reaches beyond his base."

ocean studies: USF researchers use a portable mass spectrometer designed by USF to measure the level of chemicals and compounds in the ocean. [Photo: University of South Florida]

When Betzer first arrived in St. Petersburg in 1971, the town was sleepy, and USF's marine science program had just turned 4 years old. Betzer, a chemical oceanographer from Wisconsin with a freshly minted doctorate from the University of Rhode Island, became the program's sixth faculty member. The marine science program -- it didn't become a college until 2000 -- operated its makeshift laboratories in an old merchant marine training facility along the backwaters of Bayboro Harbor. Betzer recalls how Les Tuttle, the school's first dean, would plant himself on an old couch behind the labs and fish: "I thought, 'Wow, this is really surreal.' He's sitting on a couch and casting into the bay. That was my introduction to the University of South Florida."

As a young researcher, Betzer spent anywhere from 45 to 50 days a year at sea, communicating with his wife and two daughters by ham radio. Betzer's various voyages took him to the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, North Pacific Ocean and the Sargasso Sea. His main research focus was atmospheric dust in the North Pacific, including the long-distance transfer of debris from continents to the ocean. "Deep ocean sediments were derived from the deserts," Betzer says, explaining how dust clouds stirred up in places like the Gobi desert eventually end up in the ocean floor and "like fertilizer on a cornfield" give rise to an array of microscopic plants. "We were the first to see the very large impact" that dust had on the marine environment, he says.

Betzer was making waves on land as well. In 1988, five years after being named chairman of USF's Department of Marine Science, Betzer spearheaded a collaborative research effort between the school and the U.S. Geological Survey, with help from U.S. Rep. C.W. "Bill" Young, city officials and then-USF President Frank Borkowski. Another collaborative effort followed in 1991 when the marine science department teamed up with Florida's environmental agency to build a joint research facility. With Wallace's help, the Florida Legislature provided Betzer with the funding for five engineering positions to establish the Center for Ocean Technology in 1994. In 2000, with the help of former state Sen. Don Sullivan, he secured funding for eight engineers and launched a microelectro mechanical systems (MEMS) research initiative. Betzer says the engineering spots are a tremendous asset for the school's graduate training program, attracting students who are eager to work alongside engineers and collaborate in their research.

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."

Waterfront: The Knight Oceanographic Research Center overlooks Bayboro Harbor in St. Petersburg. [Photo: Mark Wemple]

SRI International

Founded: In 1946 as the Stanford Research Institute, SRI International is a non-profit research institute based in Menlo Park, Calif., that conducts research and development for government agencies, commercial businesses, foundations and others. With its team of venture capitalists, the organization licenses its intellectual property and brings new innovations to the marketplace, including the computer mouse and high-definition television. Over the past decade, SRI clients have sponsored more than $2 billion in R&D.

SRI Innovations

? The VoxTec Phraselator, a hand-held language translator that enables U.S. soldiers deployed in foreign lands to communicate with local citizens quickly.

? Centibots, teams of coordinated autonomous mobile robots that explore, map and survey unfamiliar environments.

? Deployable Force-on-Force Instrumented Range System, which uses GPS satellites, high-speed wireless communications and digital terrain map displays to train armored combat units during battle exercises.

Recent SRI Spinoffs

? Lamina Ceramics

  • Founded: 2001
  • Headquarters: Westampton, N.J.
  • What It Does: Develops and manufactures super-bright LED light engines.

? Artificial Muscle Inc.

  • Founded: 2003
  • Headquarters: Menlo Park, Calif.
  • What It Does: Manufactures electroactive polymer artificial muscle components, which are smaller, lighter, quieter and cheaper than other components used in speakers, generators, motors, pumps and other devices.

? Intuitive Surgical

  • Founded: 1999
  • Headquarters: Sunnyvale, Calif.
  • What It Does: Manufactures tools for robotic-assisted minimally invasive surgery.


SRI St. Petersburg

Planned Initiatives

? PharmAdvance: A Florida version of SRI's successful PharmaStart model, which shows researchers how to turn new drug discoveries into marketable pharmaceutical products via the clinical trial process.

? Regional Economic Development Study: Prepared by SRI's economic development group in coordination with regional economic development agencies.

? Port Security Initiative: A multi-institutional program to create a center of excellence for port and maritime security in Florida.

? Center for Independent Aging: A new collaboration designed to assess and develop technologies and policies impacting social, technological and economic issues associated with an aging population.