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September 24, 2018

Floridian of the year: Frank DiBello, rocket man

Mike Vogel | 12/28/2016


Space Florida also has made its presence felt beyond the Space Coast: It expects to see groundbreaking this year of a building for companies in the cyber and aerospace fields that it is financing in Pensacola. And it’s fielding calls for financing help in other parts of the state. In recent years, it was involved in a submersible drone research project in Palm Beach County and a turbine project in Hendry County.

The result of DiBello’s labors? For one, the narrative for the Space Coast has shifted from the woes resulting from the shuttle’s loss to a growth story. The area has largely made up the job losses, DiBello says. In 2014, Northrop began expanding and expects 1,800 new jobs in Brevard by 2020.

More broadly, Florida’s space business is now much more diversified. The state still does plenty of launching — “Cape Canaveral Space Port will be the busiest space port in the world” in 2016, DiBello said in an interview before the year closed.

But today, there are businesses making, not just launching, payloads and rockets here. Florida ranked second to Arizona in this year’s PwC ranking of aerospace manufacturing attractiveness, falling from first only because of an increase in aerospace wages. “Florida’s Space Coast is booming,” the firm said, citing SpaceX, Blue Origin and Boeing, which is building its space crew capsule here.

“I swore when I took this job that I never wanted to see Florida again injured or damaged by an overdependence on a large federal program that got canceled,” Di- Bello says. “We had been led down that path several times.” 

DiBello also has been working to improve capital formation in Florida. Space Florida has partnered with venture capital support group Florida Venture Forum on its earlystage capital conference. He says the $600,000 it offered in prize money has resulted in $82 million in investments to presenting companies. Since 2013, the state, through Space Florida, has offered $1 million in grants annually along with another $1 million annually from Israel’s “innovation authority” to aerospace research and development projects that benefit Florida and Israel.

Challenges lie ahead. Of late, state legislative leaders have become more skeptical about offering incentives. Incoming House Speaker Richard Corcoran, Rland O’ Lakes, last year led a House effort to eliminate Scott’s requested incentive money from the budget. At a Texas think-tank panel discussion in October titled “Economic Development: A Debate On Corporate Welfare,” Corcoran said it was wrong to take tax dollars from the masses to give to businesses to relocate.

Corcoran, in an interview, noted that House members will determine Space Florida’s funding. But, he said, Space Florida got recurring revenue — $4 million — for the first time from the state in the 2012-13 budget. By this year the figure had tripled. “That recurring grew and grew and grew. The fact that you have an astronomically growing amount of dollars tells me it should be scrutinized,” Corcoran says.

Scott remains committed to incentive money. Space Florida is funded to the tune of $10 million from the state, plus another $1 million for the Israel venture and $1.5 million to promote space tourism. It doesn’t get its own pot of incentive money to distribute.

DiBello says he’s confident of legislative support. He says Space Florida doesn’t manage incentives but instead uses its spaceport tools, such as its financing ability, like any airport or seaport in business development.

More on his mind are the infrastructure hurdles Florida faces in the increasingly competitive launch business. Some 18 spaceports are proposed or already licensed in the United States and 40 globally. In 2014, Florida lost a competition for SpaceX launches to Texas, where SpaceX envisions the world’s first exclusively commercial orbital launch pad. (A SpaceX executive recently told Texas legislators that Texas needs to invest more in space. She held up, as an example to emulate, Florida.) DiBello says the state needs its own commercial-only launch complex — his favored site is opposed by environmental interests — where private-sector companies won’t have to share facilities with NASA and the Air Force. Florida has experience, but newcomers like Texas are unencumbered by legacy regulation and layers of federal civilian and military oversight.

What the Cape needs, DiBello argues, is an “evolved governance and management structure” that will remove outmoded and duplicative government requirements. Streamlining, which will require congressional action, must be resolved for the space industry here to thrive, DiBello says. A new state-run or quasi-federal Cape spaceport authority would be able to gin up the money in private markets needed to develop the spaceport, something the Air Force and NASA shouldn’t and won’t do if, as predicted, 80% of space launches are commercial.

“I’m looking at a day when Elon Musk alone is doing 50 launches here. Ten years out, I could see 150 to 200 launches in a year. That’s basically five a week.” DiBello says.

“We’re going to have to evolve a more efficient operating model at the Cape. If Florida wants to win, we must move in this direction.” 

DiBello’s goal is to see the Cape well on its way to that new independent spaceport authority before he retires in a few years. By then, space tourism might be far enough along for him to realize his dream of going on a suborbital flight. He could tell his fellow passengers how Space Florida helped make it possible.

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