The “Gulf Coast,’’ the “Suncoast’’ and the “Creative Coast’’ are just a few of the monikers for Sarasota and the surrounding cities along the west-central Florida coastline. Now, the region is gearing up to earn a new reputation as Florida’s “High-Tech Coast’’ with the launch of the first University of Florida “Innovation Station’’ in Sarasota County.
The University of Florida Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering will open the first physical extension of the college’s Florida Engineering EXperiment Station (FLEXStation) in Sarasota County later this year, bringing cutting-edge applied research, students and faculty, workforce talent and intellectual property to the Gulf Coast region.
“The purpose of the extension arm is to nurture high-tech industry -- and the one thing high-tech industry needs most is talent. We want to nurture the students who want to create businesses and hook them up with regions of the state where they can thrive. We also want to open up our researchers to companies: if they have issues that need to be addressed, or if they need access to experts in a certain field, we have a tremendous wealth of talent available to them,” says Cammy Abernathy, Dean of UF’s Wertheim College of Engineering.
Abernathy cites the long-term success of UF’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences’ (IFAS) partnerships with Florida’s agricultural industry as a model for the Innovation Station. As Florida’s Land-Grant School, Abernathy says UF has a special responsibility to help the state develop and strengthen its tech industry.
“We wanted to find a place with a nascent hi-tech economy and community; a place with expertise we can tap into, and a high
“We’re interested in strengthening high-tech education across the board in this region, and hoping that we can help educate more people in the Sarasota area to keep skills up-to-date so they can continue to be competitive in today’s high tech world. … Once you get a critical mass of tech talent -- that’s how you sustain the tech engine,” says Cammy Abernathy, Dean of UF’s Wertheim College of Engineering.
quality of life. The arts community is one of the things that makes Sarasota a great place to live and attractive to young professionals. We also wanted to go to a place that we felt was underserved, and we felt that what Sarasota was missing was what we could bring in. We can fill a niche that Sarasota identified a long time ago as being crucial to future development. It looked like a perfect match,” Abernathy says.
A public-private partnership between the University of Florida, the Sarasota County government, the EDC of Sarasota County, the Charles & Margery Barancik Foundation, and the Gulf Coast Community Foundation makes the development of the UF Innovation Station in Sarasota possible. A University of Florida investment of $1 million was met with a five-year, $980,000 grant from the Barancik Foundation and a $63,000 one-year grant from GCCF. A performance-based grant was also unanimously approved by the Sarasota County Commission to help launch the Innovation Station.
“One of the things [the University of Florida] was highly interested in learning about our community was about the existing infrastructural stakeholders -- Sarasota’s businesses and educational institutions -- in regards to whether they were willing and welcoming to having something like this in our community. ... The purpose on their part combined with the talent in our community made for a perfect match,” says Jeff Maultsby, Director of the Sarasota County Office of Business and Economic Development.
The Innovation Station will launch later this year in Sarasota County-leased office space, with a staff of 3-5 employees from UF, including a director and program coordinators focused on workforce development, industry and educational collaborations.
The Innovation Station will partner with State College of Florida (SCF) so that students may begin course studies in computer engineering before physically matriculating as fulltime students at UF, a program Abernathy says is currently being piloted at Santa Fe College in Gainesville, with about 60 students enrolling annually.
“I think one element of this project is to help to bring high tech type engineering personnel back to our community through a number of avenues -- one avenue being a matriculation through SCF, and then back into our community through internships and project-type work,” Maultsby says.
Abernathy adds that UF’s long-term goals include forming interdisciplinary partnerships with Sarasota schools such as New College and Ringling College of Art + Design, as well as reaching local K-12 schools in the Sarasota County School District to encourage STEM-stimulating programs.
“We’re interested in strengthening high-tech education across the board in this region, and hoping that we can help educate more people in the Sarasota area to keep skills up-to-date so they can continue to be competitive in today’s high tech world. … Once you get a critical mass of tech talent -- that’s how you sustain the tech engine,” says Abernathy.