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It’s official: Maritime and Defense Tech Hub on the way, tenants announced

Mark Parker

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The City of St. Petersburg has officially entered into a lease with the St. Pete Innovation District to create a Defense and Maritime Technology Hub.

After months of planning and negotiations, a five-year license agreement has officially been approved between the city and the Innovation District to bring a much-anticipated Maritime and Defense Technology Hub to St. Petersburg.

During Thursday’s city council meeting, councilmembers enthusiastically and unanimously approved the long-awaited license agreement for the St. Petersburg Innovation District to take control of the former SRI International building. The waterfront facility is located at 450 8th Avenue SE and contains 32,386 sq. ft. of space. Built in 2009, the building cost $10 million to construct. The cost of development was covered by a $5 million grant from the State of Florida, along with a matching grant from Pinellas County.

Alison Barlow, Executive Director for the St. Pete Innovation District, called the new partnership a win for all parties.

“The concept of the St. Petersburg Maritime and Defense Tech Hub is – I dare to say it -innovative,” said Barlow. “It’s not something we have here today, and it’s not something you see commonly.”

The facility features ample space for research, equipment and utilizing new forms of technology, and a convenient location on the port allows for in-water testing and evaluations. The location also makes future tenants neighbors with the U.S. Coast Guard station, and the building contains a Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility (SCIF) that makes it uniquely suited for military, national security and defense industries.

“We’re collaborating across private industry, government, education and nonprofits to accelerate key industries in our community,” said Barlow.

Barlow noted that talks with the city council have been ongoing for nine months, and they have “essentially birthed a child with this.” She added the idea has been evolving for many years, however, and the former SRI building presented the ideal location to see the vision come to fruition. Barlow said the amount of interest received in this project has been somewhat surprising.

“We knew there was a need for this type of facility,” she said. “But candidly, I didn’t realize how much.”

Barlow stated that if she had a second building similar to this one, she would fill that as well.

“There’s that much interest and excitement and energy.”

Barlow said the facility is also creating new opportunities for conferences and outside engagement, and promised the city is “going to see some really cool things come out around this.”

One of the greatest strengths of the project is turning a single-tenant facility into a home for many valuable organizations. Barlow relayed how the future tenants are not only excited for the amenities the building provides but also relish the opportunity to be surrounded by “like-minded, future-focused technology-oriented companies.”

Barlow said 12 companies currently make up the Hub, filling about 80% of the building. She said the Innovation District is very selective when choosing tenants and has an advisory board comprised of Innovation District partners, core tenants and experts on the matter with prior experience to help curate potential companies.

Barlow looks for organizations that will align with commitments made to the city and county, along with their ability to collaborate with Innovation District partners and other tenants of the Hub.

Pole Star is one key tenant and one that Barlow previously mentioned to city council. Pole Star supports and builds government and maritime national data centers, and the company – based out of London, serves over 60 countries worldwide. Pole Star’s U.S. headquarters in St. Petersburg will focus on collecting geospatial data tracking.

Barlow said the Hub will feature technology assisting both domestic and international search-and-rescue operations, maritime surveillance, and international sanctions compliance. She also said Pole Star’s continuously operating data center will bolster other key partnerships.

“This will be core to our work with the Coast Guard, with the Navy, and our other maritime partners,” Barlow said.

Aveshka, another core tenant, became interested in the site after its Chief Innovation Officer and Director of Talent Operations relocated to the city last year. Based out of Washington D.C., Aveshka is a software engineering firm employed by the Department of Defense, Homeland Security, and NATO. Aveshka was named the fourth-best small business to work for by Consulting Magazine in 2020.

Gates Defense Group, a graduate of the Tampa Bay Innovation Center, is another tenant and specializes in open-source intelligence training, research, and software development for defense intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Gates was a part of a group that recently aided 3,000 American citizens and those with specialized visas to escape Afghanistan and return safely to the U.S.

Barlow also named DarkStar, a rapidly growing technology firm recognized in 2020 as an Inc. 5000 awardee.

“As you can see, we have gathered some really amazing companies with a lot of potential,” said Barlow.

In addition to the private companies, Barlow announced the Hub will also feature a nonprofit organization, SOFWolf. SOFWolf is a national nonprofit based in St. Pete, and since 2012 has provided STEM education to and career development to children of fallen veterans and from underserved communities.

Concerning government and education, Barlow also said Florida Flood Hub is finalizing plans to join the facility. This is an initiative established through the University of South Florida College of Marine Science, and it will coordinate statewide efforts between academics and researchers to address flooding and sea-level rise concerns.

“Their addition provides an interesting opportunity to link research, policy and implementation together,” said Barlow.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute is another Hub partner. The facility will allow the organization to expand its capabilities with field-deployable oceanographic instruments.

“There are more tenants I could tell you about – and some I can’t yet,” said Barlow. “So, look forward to more announcements in the coming weeks.”

Barlow said tenants will begin to move into the facility in November, and she hopes to have a soft launch of the Hub in December.

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