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USF, Innovation District vie for $160 million grant

Officials with the University of South Florida and St. Petersburg Innovation District hope to secure “transformational” funding to create a powerful economic engine by utilizing the region’s coastal expertise.

Dr. Steve Murawski, director of the Center for Ocean Mapping and Innovative Technologies at the College of Marine Science on the St. Petersburg campus, and Alison Barlow, executive director of the Innovation District, are spearheading the process. They told the Catalyst that the area is uniquely suited to win the 10-year, $160 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant.

The funding is part of the NSF’s Regional Innovation Engines initiative. According to its website, the program catalyzes and fosters innovation ecosystems to advance critical technologies and address national challenges in the face of global competition.

“It is absolutely transformational,” said Barlow. “It will bring the entire region together, and it would also put us in the role of thought leaders across the country on the topic of the new blue economy.”

Barlow believes their proposal will stand out from other applications due to an established foundation of experience and knowledge. She noted that USFSP, government researchers and St. Petersburg’s private sector collaborated on traditional blue economy initiatives long before the formal launch of the Innovation District.

The traditional blue economy includes fisheries, tourism and maritime transportation. The latest iteration capitalizes on improved collection, analysis and dissemination of marine data to spur financial growth and address societal challenges.

“It’s where you take those tech experts and marry them with the deep expertise we have in marine science,” explained Barlow. “There’s a lot of applications and uses that people don’t even realize.”

The Florida Institute of Oceanography’s research vessel Hogarth docks in the Innovation District. Photo by Mark Parker.

Murawski said the organizations would soon submit a letter of intent, and full proposals are due by Jan. 18. He and Barlow now hope to rally community support, starting Wednesday with a presentation to the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce.

From now through the holidays, relayed Murawski, the two will bolster the proposal to ensure the NSF realizes “we’ve got the tiger by the tail here.”

He explained that the program’s overarching goal is to help the U.S. reclaim its status as a global leader in creating technological innovations that spur economic growth. Several national leaders, said Murawski, have identified Tampa Bay as one of the metropolitan statistical areas (MSA) with the highest potential to jumpstart the next tech revolution.

“Certainly, it’s the highest-ranked MSA in Florida,” he added. “And it’s the highest-ranked coastal MSA in the U.S.

“And I think what Alison has done in the Innovation District is a microcosm of what the National Science Foundation is looking for.”

According to a copy of the presentation, experts expect the ocean economy to reach $3 trillion by 2030, double the current valuation. It states that one in 10 global livelihoods depend on fisheries, and companies ship 80% of all international goods across the world’s oceans.

Endorsements from local political and business leaders, explained Barlow, would show that everyone recognizes the importance of where they live in Florida.

“The fact that we’re a peninsula on a giant peninsula,” she said. “And all of these issues that we’re going to be tackling with this engine are of critical importance to not only us but our livelihoods.”

Barlow mentioned St. Pete-based Neptune Flood and its efforts to change the flood insurance paradigm and wondered what it could accomplish with better oceanic data – specifically offshore. Involving local business leaders, said Barlow, allows stakeholders to think creatively about the program’s possibilities.

Murawski and Barlow noted the grant would not go towards building newly proposed projects, such as USFSP’s Environmental and Oceanographic Sciences Research and Teaching Facility (EOS) or a second building for Barlow’s Maritime and Defense Technology Hub. Instead, they said it would complement the research and programming that emanates from those buildings and the area.

“It would add more leverage,” said Murawski. “It just makes it more imperative to build the buildings and to work on the academic side.”

A graphic showing the Innovation District’s various organizations from the presentation to the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce. Screengrab.

He explained that the NSF grant process typically takes about six months, and he expects the foundation’s team to conduct site visits due to the magnitude of funding.

Barlow said they hope “key partners” will submit letters of collaboration and relayed her willingness to talk with any business or organizational leaders who feels they have something to offer. As a 10-year program, she said they might implement ideas in various phases.

Including historically underserved communities, Murawski noted, is also a priority for the NSF. He hopes to develop training programs specifically for those groups while “incubating and accelerating” all good ideas. That could include funding pitch competitions, he said.

With $160 million on the line, Murawski expects stiff competition for the grant from around 100 nationwide applicants. However, he is confident that USFSP and the Innovation District are well-positioned to emerge victorious.

“I would be shocked if they didn’t give us serious consideration for this,” said Murawski. “We have all the elements here. Right in Tampa Bay – right on the waterfront in St. Pete. So, why not?”

Mark Parker

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  • Our strong suit is the assembled group of agencies that Congressman Bill Young helped bring over 25 years. Our weakest link is 2 years of vetoed funding to grown USFSP marine science. The messages convey sharply different values.

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