Updated 12 months ago
Federal funding for cutting-edge research puts USF's Bayboro campus on the map.
by Stacie Kress Booker
When Peter Betzer joined the University of South Florida's department of marine science in 1971, it was a fledgling program with 10 professors and 45 grad students. Today, he chairs a dynamic department and academic hub at the St. Petersburg/Bayboro campus with more than double the number of faculty and students.
Now, it is also in the high-tech limelight, having secured $6.5 million in federal funding for research and development of micro-electromechanical systems or MEMS, which can produce devices the size of a grain of sand that fit on the surface of a microchip. Applications range from industrial to medical. According to industry projections, the national market for MEMS devices will triple by 2002, to upwards of $5 billion.
The MEMS research at USF could provide critical support to the heavy concentration of medical equipment and biomedical firms in the region, and it's a technology that companies along the I-4 high-tech corridor will need to remain competitive.
It's not a done deal, however. USF needs additional funding from the state and Pinellas County. USF also needs a new R&D facility. One is slated for the Pinellas County Science Technology and Research (STAR) Center, but the converted defense-industry plant is fully occupied. STAR officials are scrambling to accommodate USF or help find funding for a new space.
The MEMS facility could be up and running within a year. Initial focus will be on devices for ocean sensors and medical diagnostic instruments for premature babies, but USF faces a lengthy development period between concept and getting a product to market.
This is not USF's first exposure to MEMS. Lucent Technologies has been working closely with USF's engineering department, backing MEMS research for the telecommunications industry and helping USF build the infrastructure to draw high-tech businesses.While the STAR Center facility will be spearheaded by marine science, other departments, especially engineering and the medical school, will collaborate.
STAR Center occupant Constellation Technology eagerly awaits the facility and expects to collaborate, too. Another local company, Dunedin-based Ocean Optics, already has close ties to USF's Bayboro campus. A spinoff from research begun in the marine science department, the $10-million company developed the first miniature fiber optic spectrometer used for optical sensing and sees its own growth riding on MEMS research.
While the federal grant money is a coup for the region, Florida is still playing catch-up. Research facilities at other U.S. universities have substantially more funding for MEMS research. Ohio State has $30 million earmarked; the University of Michigan $130 million. High local hopes need to be tempered with patience, says Betzer. "With science, you know you're going to make progress," he says. "You just don't know when that's going to be."
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