April 24, 2019

Ron Stein Column

How an 1862 law fostered UF's Innovation Station in Sarasota

Erik Sander, the Founding Director of the University of Florida's Engineering Innovation Institute, was tasked with establishing a state-wide network to support tech workforce and business development.

Ron Stein | 6/4/2017

What do Abraham Lincoln, agriculture, and high tech have in common?

This is a story about something very exciting that’s happening in Florida now. And how an 1862 law is helping create a surge in entrepreneurs and small businesses today.

But, I’m getting ahead of the story.

In 1860 American engineers were mostly educated at the West Point Military Academy. Unfortunately, there were only forty graduates that year and Congressman Justin Morrill realized it was a problem.

After all, how could a country with 31,443,321 people grow the economy with so few engineers to create innovative concepts and new companies?

Representative Morrill had an idea -- provide all citizens greater access to higher education in areas of study that would move the U.S. forward. So, he introduced legislation that established the land-grant university system. President Lincoln signed the Morrill Act in 1862.

That was one year before Lincoln gave his famous Gettysburg Address!

With some tweaks by Congress through the years, land-grant institutions have been given a mission to teach agriculture and the mechanic arts -- what we call engineering today -- and return the benefits back to the community.

Jump to the early 1900s. Way back then the emphasis was on agriculture. With funding from Congress, Florida established agricultural experiment stations and cooperative extension agencies under the direction of one of its two land-grant universities, the University of Florida.

So, what’s the connection in the story between agriculture in the past and Florida’s high tech business push today? The mandate as a land-grant university was to “send agents to every county of the state” and act as an economic spark.

Now for the a-ha flash of the story. That system, based on an 1862 law, is serving as the model for a bold and innovative program today -- the Florida Engineering Experiment Station or FLEXStation. The first “Innovation Station” was launched last year in Sarasota as part of UF’s Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering.

The goal is to work with industry and economic development partners to deliver a real impact to every corner of Florida -- creation of startup companies, high wage jobs, and the development of an educated workforce.

Erik Sander is the moving force behind FLEXStation. In 2015 Sander was tasked with establishing a state-wide network to support the tech workforce and business development as the Founding Executive Director of the FLEXStation.

Erik Sander
Erik Sander

Sander, who is also the Founding Director of the UF Engineering Innovation Institute, began his career as a project manager and senior engineer analyzing advanced fighter aircraft engines and the space shuttle main engine for NASA. He went on to become a principal for a private technology incubator and early stage venture fund. And along the way he grew several start-up companies.

Then Sander jumped at a new opportunity. He joined the faculty of the UF College of Engineering to promote a culture of innovation leadership. He was now at the intersection of industrial collaboration, entrepreneurship, and technology commercialization.

“Technology, innovation, and entrepreneurism are key drivers in today’s high tech fast paced economy,” said Sander. “We are applying our Land Grant responsibility to the twenty-first century to transform Florida into an emerging leader in high tech.”

“We are re-envisioning a 100 year plus mandate and our goal is to recruit, retain, and grow Florida’s high tech industry,” Sander added. “Our vision of helping to transform Florida into an emerging leader in the high tech economy with a lasting economic impact is happing now.”

Under Sander’s leadership, the Innovation Station in Sarasota has taken off with regional public and private funding support. Four staff members have been brought onboard to spearhead area efforts to grow programs and businesses.

The next step is to expand to other regions and form new industry and economic development partnerships. Ultimately, the FLEXStation is much more than a physical extension of state resources into local communities. It’s the creation of an environment attractive to innovators, experienced leadership, and venture capital at the local level.

No flash in the pan here, only a flash of inspiration. This is a glimpse of the rapidly emerging innovation economy in Florida that’s here today

Congressman Morrill would be proud to see the results of our land-grant tradition and how it’s delivering results beyond education. It’s a system that thrives to this day here in Florida.

Ron Stein is founder of More Customers Academy, helping business leaders build strategic messaging and positioning that cuts through the competitive noise to grow revenue. Ron has developed his own highly successful 5-step Stand Out & Sell More approach to winning new customers as a result of his twenty-five years of business development, marketing, and selling experiences. He works with a range of businesses, from startups to large corporations across industries including technology and healthcare, manufacturing, and financial services and banking. Ron conducts workshops, leads company meetings, offers keynote talks, and consults. He can be reached at 727-398-1855 or by email.


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