January 23, 2021

Research Florida

High-Tech, Low-Carb: Profile of Ken Ford

Mike Vogel | 8/28/2018

Top talent

Ford’s approach to running the institute has been to look for the best available talent in a certain field or hire young researchers whom he expects to become the best.

“Ken sort of hand-picks them,” says University of South Florida scientist Dominic D’Agostino, who shares a position with the institute. “They’re just recruiting really the best of the best. Ken selects the people from MIT who are the best at MIT.”

In hiring, Ford doesn’t follow the herd. The institute has had six fellows in the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence — “triple AI fellows” — but now that AI is hot and top talent expensive, Ford isn’t recruiting for it. “We zig when the world zags,” he says.

Once hired, researchers at the institute are expected to bring in enough grants and financial support to pay themselves and their teams, meet their equipment needs and contribute to institute overhead. Those who can’t do so get shown the door.

At present, the institute has 130 researchers and staff. Most are in Pensacola, with a few in Ocala and Silicon Valley. The institute has several researchers like D’Agostino who work under joint appointments — deals that Ford would like to arrange more often — with in-state and out-of-state partners.

Financially, zigging has worked well. The institute gets annual recurring funding of $2.7 million from the state, but most of its revenue comes from grants for research, along with some funds from licensing proceeds and donors. In 2016, the institute reached a recent-year peak of $18.9 million in revenue, according to tax filings. It runs in the black, with growing assets. Higher-paid researchers in some cases make more than $300,000 — not unusual for top-flight scientists at similar institutions.

In 1990, the institute moved into a renovated former city police station and jail building in downtown Pensacola, complemented in 2016 by a new three-story brick office building. The vibe downstairs is urban tech startup — lots of young people, lots of programming, headsets, concrete, laptops and senior investigators like Jerry Pratt, a big name in robotics, walking back to the institute at lunchtime surrounded by interns and young scientists.

The new brick building, meant to evoke downtown’s warehouse days, features curving steel suspended staircases that lead from floors with offices for researchers to ground floor labs.

A blue orb the size of a cottage dominates one lab. It rotates with people inside who examine the interaction between vision and the sense of balance we get from our inner ear. End result: Nausea.

Down the hall, a team works on a prototype of an exercise device the institute built for NASA astronauts that Ford thinks can be commercialized for sale on earth. “The market would be limited in space,” he deadpans.

Across the shop floor hang two humanoid robots the institute obtained and programmed. The robots won acclaim — and $1 million — in challenges run by DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the government agency that funds highly ambitious tech research.

The scenario for the DARPA robotics competition, devised in the wake of the Fukushima tsunami nuclear plant incident in Japan in 2011, called for rescue robots to complete a number of tasks at an industrial site, including driving a vehicle, climbing a ladder, navigating debris and turning off a valve.

The robotic work, led by Pratt, became the focus of a Time cover story. The institute team won one of three DARPA shoot-outs and placed second — highest among U.S. teams — in two others.

For Ford, the new building, the scientists and the revival of Pensacola’s small downtown are all aspects of the culture he’s tried to create for the institute. He wanted the institute in a livable, walkable downtown and made it a pioneer in the downtown renaissance. He lives 200 feet from the institute in a white-brick replica of an old South home. He’s clearly pleased with the institute’s “huge” impact downtown and happily cites the hundred of residential units coming as he takes a midday espresso refresher at Bodacious Brew in a French Quarterstyle building near the waterfront.

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