by Amy Keller
Updated 6 months ago
In a corner office on the second floor of the Florida Innovation Hub, three University of Florida engineering grads are writing code for a new mobile app called Beacon that can scan mobile phone users’ surroundings and provide them with digital information — everything from a weather report to coupons and a list of daily specials. Down the hall, a team at a company called Feathr is working on that company’s signature product — a smartphone app that allows users to create and exchange interactive digital business cards. One floor up, Matthew Herbolich is on a conference call working to drum up some new funding for TruVitals, a startup that is looking to commercialize a wireless monitoring technology that uses radio waves to detect vital signs such as respiration and heartbeat.
“Right now we’re up to 26 companies ... and I anticipate by the end of the summer, we’ll be getting close to full capacity,” says Jane Muir, associate director of UF’s Office of Technology Licensing and director of the new, 48,000-sq.-ft. Florida Innovation Hub at UF “super incubator.”
Nurturing startups isn’t a new concept for UF. Since 1995, companies at the University’s Sid Martin Biotechnology Incubator have attracted more than $1 billion in investments, contracts and grants. Successful spinoffs have included Pasteuria Bioscience, acquired in 2012 by Syngenta for $113 million. The incubator recently took top honors when it was named 2013 international Incubator of the Year by the National Business Incubation Association.
Sid Martin, however, is in Alachua, about 20 minutes northwest of UF’s campus., and the UF community wanted an incubator “right here on campus. It makes collaboration with the university researchers that much easier,” says Stephanie Warrington, chairwoman of the board of BioFlorida and a serial entrepreneur who has worked with eight Gainesville startups.
In 2009, amid the recession, Muir says, all the pieces fell into place. When Alachua General Hospital closed, the university got access to a prime location two blocks east of campus. Then, Muir stumbled upon an unexpected opportunity. In the wake of several damaging hurricanes, the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration began making grants to states and organizations to help build disaster-resilient economies. “The whole idea was, how do we help create disaster-resistant jobs — and typically these high-tech jobs tend to be more disaster-resistant than tourism or agriculture or even defense,” says Muir, who got the $8.2 million she asked for, along with $5 million in funding from UF.
As she oversaw the design and construction of the incubator, Muir says she had one main goal — “creating collision.” Affordable office and lab space, she says, is only part of what startups need. The real trick is to bring smart people together. “We know when smart people get together and have conversations, amazing things happen.”
To foster that interaction, the Innovation Hub sponsors seminars that double as training events and networking opportunities. At the hub’s monthly “lunch-and-learn” series, entrepreneurs hear from accountants, intellectual property attorneys and other experts with advice on how to succeed.
Warrington now works on the second floor of the building as president of TrueMotion Spine, a medical device company that’s attempting to commercialize the patented cervical and lumbar disc-replacement devices. “What really drove us to take physical space in the hub was the need for face-to-face time, not only among members of our own team, but also to make those collaborations happen,” Warrington says.
“My co-founders enjoy meeting the other entrepreneurs. There are a couple of others in the medical device area of health care, and we have some common investors that come right in to get updates. There is a great local angel investment company, and they love coming to the hub and meeting with us,” she says.
Some startups needing investment advice won’t need to look further than the building’s second and third floors, where Boston-based MPM Capital and Harbert Venture Partners, an Alabama-based venture capital firm, maintain offices. Other hub residents include James Moore & Co., a full-service accounting firm, and Saliwanchik Lloyd & Eisenschenk, an intellectual property law firm with expertise in patent, trademark and other trade secret litigation. Muir and the other members of UF’s Office of Technology Licensing, meanwhile, are housed on the first floor of the business incubator.
In the first year and half since the hub opened, the startup tenants have generated more than 200 jobs. Shadow Health, which develops interactive health care training programs based on technology licensed from the university, grew from three employees to two dozen within a year after moving into the hub in 2011. Today, the company operates from a renovated hardware store downtown and has more than 40 employees.
“That’s the kind of story we want to replicate again and again,” says Muir. “We know we’re not going to hit home runs with all of these — it’s a numbers game — but we try hard to look at the companies coming in and make a judgment based on whether they’re technology-based, have the ability to create jobs and are willing to be part of the program.”