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USF Connect: Bridging academia and tech business

Kelsey Burgess and Jonathan Manigo assist TBTI companies and greet visitors.

USF Connect provides private spaces for tech start-ups.

Fadi Bitar, left, and Caelen Burke create apps at Leapdoctor Locums.

Jing Li works on an assignment inside the lobby.

Laurie Sullivan, left, and Valerie Landrio McDevitt at USF Connect.

A harbor security robot created by Tampa Deep Sea Explorers.

Tampa Deep Sea Xplorers is developing an autonomous underwater vehicle using the swimming pool at the University of South Florida’s Tampa campus. Using the pool is an economical way to test the equipment they hope will be used commercially someday.

“You have so many connections just by being in here,” says Art Ianuzzi, as he sits in a conference room at USF Connect, strategically located near campus.  

He and Ed Larson, the Xplorers’ Founder and CEO, are part of a team that makes its business home at USF Connect.

Though not technically on campus, USF Connect is located in USF Research Park, which effectively acts as a front door to the campus on Fowler Avenue. The park also houses USF’s new Office of Corporate Partnerships, a place where businesses that want to collaborate with the university can come.

Located across the street from students and professors that can help businesses run and expand operations, the some 60 companies in USF Connect share a desire to have -- or maintain -- a relationship with USF.

An additional 25 are in a student incubator program.

“It really is a community asset,” says Valerie Landrio McDevitt, Associate VP, Technology Transfer and Business Partnerships, who oversees the USF Incubation Program, Technology Transfer Program, and the USF Florida High Technology Corridor Matching Grants Program. 

As part of the robust Tampa Bay tech scene, USF Connect focuses on technology talent in Tampa Bay’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, as well as bio/life sciences companies. It offers laboratories and expertise needed by biology and life science firms, plus access to lots of interns to fill short-term jobs that may eventually become permanent.

Unlike accelerator programs in the area, USF Connect doesn’t engage businesses for programs that may last 13 weeks. “We’re ... not an accelerator,” McDevitt explains. “We have some companies that might be with us five or more years because that is the life cycle for biology type inventors.”

Afterwards, there’s plenty of place in the park to move to; they can even build their own building.

Lots of educational seminars, mentors, networking, and access to USF faculty and staff are also part of the perks available at USF Connect. 

Laurie Sullivan, USF Connect Program Coordinator, is the go-to person for people who want to know what’s happening in the program at USF Research Park. Or who need to talk to someone about a specific issue. 

“She drives the day-to-day bus of this beast,” McDevitt quips.

Sullivan’s responsibilities include overseeing events like BEAT, Building Entrepreneurship Around TampaBay, which showcases innovative startups and provides educational information and opportunities to pitch for funds. Cellvana Biotechnology, founded by its CEO, Dr. Alina Ruta, won in the Bio/Tech Company category in the November contest. The Student Company Award went to Izu Madubueze, CEO and founder, of Uhuru Designs.

“A lot of people hear about us by word of mouth,” Sullivan says. “If it looks like they might be a good fit for our program, we invite them to present before our vetting panel.”

Guidance is provided by two Entrepreneurs in Residence, John Morrow and Dr. Valerie Riddle, and Executive in Residence Dr. Shri Goyal. Lab Manager Leigh West maintains lab equipment, introduces clients to that equipment and ensures they get safety training.

The businesses that make USF Connect their home are varied. Some have been there a relatively short period of time, others for years.

Tampa Deep Sea Xplorers

The Xplorers have been working on an autonomous vehicle for deep water, designed from a scuba diving tank, for more than a year. They are planning to compete for the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE, originally scheduled in October in Puerto Rico. But hurricanes Irma and Maria forced organizers to delay the event until next year.

“We’ll be ready. We’re still working,” Larson says.

Shell is looking for a robot to do undersea mapping. 

“The winner gets right of first refusal from Shell to license technology,” Ianuzzi points out. “Any of the runners up have substantial product.”

Team members also developed a shallow water vessel for a SOFWERX competition Nov. 1-3 in Ybor City. It is being designed for rescues along with an autonomous boat.

So far, they’ve raised some $10,000 to finance their efforts by winning four SOFWERX competitions, which are intended to generate public input on military and government concerns.


The 7-year-old Leapdoctor, run by husband-and-wife team Ashok and Ronit Tyagi, is also steadily reinvesting. A staffing firm that places physicians in temporary or locum tenens positions, Leapdoctor generates money for multiple business endeavors, such as its LeapCaller system that automates the calling process to place doctors. Or a new, challenging video puzzle game, Crystals and Curses, set to launch Jan. 1, 2018. Or even a mobile app, Tieship, which facilitates professional networking, scheduled to go into beta testing Nov. 1. 

“The sky’s the limit,” Ronit says. “We’re really excited about the future. Being part of this program has helped us grow 10 times faster.”

Both USF graduates, the couple came to USF Connect about a year ago. Ashok, a physician, is serving as Leapdoctor’s CEO. Ronit, who holds an MBA in healthcare management, is a VP mixing child raising with entrepreneurship. Their third baby was a regular at Leapdoctor offices for awhile.

Nilogen Oncosystems 

As its name suggests, Nilogen Oncosystems is working to combat cancer. A research firm working under contract to the biotech and pharmaceutical industry, it helps test drugs that work with the body’s immune system to defeat lung cancer. Eventually, it may be used with other types of cancer.

Lung cancer patients may have five to seven approved drugs they can use to treat the disease, explains Dr. Sigrid M. Volko, President and CEO. The company’s system is being developed to help patients and doctors determine which medicine is best, sparing patients from treatments that do not help.

“There’s is a cost burden to society,” says Volko, who co-founded the company in 2013 with Drs. Soner Altiok and Scott Antonia. “You don’t want to give somebody a six figure treatment when they will not benefit.”

Nilogen Oncosystems works with live rather than preserved tissue, using small portions of the tumor in its natural environment.

“Our approach is unique enough in a sense that we resolved issues that other companies are still struggling with,” she says.

Being located in USF Connect since late 2014 has saved the company quite a bit in lab costs. Its proximity to Moffitt Cancer Center has enabled it to tap into a pool of talented scientists and technicians.

USF Connect is one of the few state-of-the-art spaces that has opened its doors to startup companies with an affordable fee structure, she says.


Unlike other companies that stay with USF Connect a few years, Modelithics has been around since 2001. Founded by Drs. Thomas Weller, Chair of USF’s Department of Electrical Engineering, and Larry Dunleavy, Modelithics helps accelerate the design process for communications systems using radar and microwave frequencies. 

“We help enable a first pass, design success from computer screen to circuit board,” explains Dunleavy, President and CEO, who teaches at USF’s Center for Wireless and Microwave Information Systems.

The first company in the USF Technology Incubator, Modelithics is now a resident business enjoying steady growth. It was also a finalist in Workplace Culture for the 14th Annual Tampa Bay Tech Awards Nov. 10.

The company, which serves a niche market, has found USF Connect is critical to its survival. “Sometimes you can hurt your company by being a little ambitious with your growth plans,” he says. “We don’t need a lot of space.”

Their location is “very convenient for the part-time interns we employ on a regular basis,” he adds.

Here’s a complete list of companies in the Tampa Bay Technology Incubator.

AbleNook, LLC
AceApplications LLC
Adaptive Immersion Technologies
Agilis Biotherapeutics, Inc.
BetaBiotica, LLC
BORDA Technology & RFID Innovative Solutions
Cellvana Biotechnology, LLC
Claro Scientific
Clear Spec
COI Energy Services LLC
Disruptive Nutrition LLC
Dr. B.B.Thakar Research Center
Geneus, Inc.
IBIS Therapeutics, LLC
Innovatia Medical Systems, LLC
Inteliex Biomedical Corp
Intezyne Technologies
Invest Defense
KeriCure, Inc.
Ketone Technologies, LLC
Lawbec Innovations, LLC
Leap Forward Enterprise LLC
Life Enabling Technologies
Looshes Labs, LLC
My Reviewers, LLC
Natura Therapeutics
NeuroEM Therapeutics, Inc.
Nilogen Oncosystems
Ovation Diagnostics
Phoinix Holding Company
Primack & Associates, LLC
Pure Molecular, LLC
Saneron CCEL Therapeutics
Scientific League, Inc.
SGN NanoPharma, Inc.
Small Business Development Center
SprainGo LLC
Stem Genesis
StemCell Lab Corp
Tampa Deep-Sea X-plorers LLC
TransGenex NanoBiotech, Inc.
Trash2Cash-Energy, Inc.
Ultrasonic Technologies, Inc.
Venn Therapeutics LLC
ViroCure USA, Inc.
VuEssence Inc
Water, Health, and Sustainability LLC
Yasny, LLC

On-site service providers are:

Hutchison PLLC
Florida Small Business Development Center
The Entrepreneur Law Center

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Read more articles by Cheryl Rogers.

Cheryl Rogers is a freelance writer and editor who enjoys writing about careers. An ebook author, she also writes Bible Camp Mystery series that shares her faith. She is publisher of New Christian Books Online Magazine and founder of the Mentor Me Career Network, a free online community, offering career consulting, coaching and career information. 
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