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Startup City: University of South Florida’s role in the innovation ecosystem

Karen Chassin



Photo: University of South Florida.

This is a series of perspectives from local leaders who support startup businesses and social ventures, or who have started one themselves. Each is invited to envision what a world-class startup ecosystem would look like in St. Petersburg and to share their ideas for how we get there.

It’s pretty difficult to have a world-class city without an excellent research university. The same linkage appears to apply to higher education and top-tier entrepreneurial ecosystems, say most innovation experts. To get a read on this from a university leader, I spoke with Regional Chancellor Dr. Martin Tadlock at the University of South Florida recently.

I entered the conversation thinking narrowly about what resources the university has to offer entrepreneurs and investors in St. Petersburg. Think usual suspects: patents and technology transfer office; business school faculty and entrepreneurship programs; biotech research.

Our discussion opened my mind to the innovation that’s in the DNA of USF students as well as faculty, with connection points that stretch far and wide across the city and region.

“Research faculty are by their very nature entrepreneurial,” Dr. Tadlock said. “Their mission is to be on the cutting edge of new knowledge, then figuring out how to operationalize it. Undergraduates are also pursuing their passions via research, and many are launching startups. Some are being considered for investment.” The school’s roughly 4,800 students are an asset in themselves, he asserts.

In what became a virtual tour of some innovation high points on the St. Petersburg campus, another thing became clear. Investible business solutions are but one outcome of the passion and intellectual energy on campus. Students, faculty and administrators are also creating new approaches to social and environmental challenges, including sea rise, systemic racism and food waste.

Case in point: the Florida Flood Hub for Applied Research and Innovation was proposed at the USF College of Marine Science in May by the Florida state legislature, part of a $100 million statewide grant program to help local governments plan and combat rising seas. This distinction and the resources it brings to the community are thanks to a tradition of both research and public engagement that date back to the school’s earliest years in the 1960s. The college’s work on coastal resiliency will have untold economic benefit for St. Petersburg and beyond.

Tadlock shared two stories of students creatively solving problems for environmental benefit. First, a group of undergraduates, troubled by the prospects of dining hall food going to waste at the end of the day, organized a fully student-powered program to deliver fresh means to the local domestic violence shelter, CASA, each evening. Another group put chemistry and ingenuity to work to address food waste that inevitably occurs in any system. They invested in an ORCA “biodigester”—believed to be the only one at a Florida state university – that uses oxygen, water and microorganisms that flourish in cold water to break down food otherwise headed to a landfill into a liquid effluent that can be safely disposed of via the septic system.

And not to shortchange those traditional academic pathways that foster business innovation, the university has majors, minors and certificate programs in Innovation. These generate regional talent primed to see and activate opportunities, whether they manifest as commercial or social enterprises.

Another example is the Consumer Insight and Sales Laboratory at the Kate Tiedemann School of Business and Finance. Students learn by doing alongside faculty who provide survey and research services for hire. While major consumer goods giants typically have their own focus group facilities and data experts on staff, the lab brings state-of-the-art market research tools and consulting within reach of startups and smaller businesses at an affordable cost.

Tadlock admits that the wealth of resources to be tapped at the campus are so extensive that it can be challenging to make all the appropriate connections. To that end, they recently created a new staff position, funded jointly with the City of St. Petersburg, the Innovation District and the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership, to serve as a high-level liaison. Businesses, individuals, nonprofits “and anyone who wants to do something or start something,” Tadlock says, will have a point person to contact who knows all the campus’s assets and points of connection.

Caryn Nesmith, who previously served as special projects manager, will fill the position.

It’s clear that USF is already playing a major role in regional innovation. And the university is working toward closer connections with entrepreneurs, investors and others with a creative, can-do approach to business and social problems. The good news is that this crucial player in the ecosystem is open to ideas and ready for yet deeper engagement.

Karen Chassin is Executive Director of the St. Petersburg Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the St. Petersburg Group. Its mission is to build capacity at the organizational and community level for social impact. Her previous work includes leadership roles at the Foundation for a Healthy St. Petersburg and the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan. At the latter organization she served for several years on the New Economy Initiative, a $100 million collective impact initiative created by 10 national and regional foundations to equitably revitalize Detroit’s economy.






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