Bernie Machen: Laying the foundation for a future of innovation

Published: Friday, January 13, 2012 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 12, 2012 at 2:34 p.m.

In an institution as old as the University of Florida, it is rare to experience an occasion that feels historic. The dedication of the Innovation Hub is one of those rare occasions.

Innovation Hub, as both the building itself and the idea behind it, is the cornerstone of a landmark for the university, this community and the state of Florida. Most of all, for the innovation that holds promise to better human lives.

From at least the time of the Old Testament, the cornerstone has represented both a unifying foundation in architecture; and a fundamentally important idea. In a building, the cornerstone sets the pattern of every other stone laid. As a foundational idea, the cornerstone sets the tone, pointing everyone toward a higher, better goal.

The Innovation Hub cornerstone has four sides. The first is the final fusion of UF entrepreneurship with UF research.

This side began half a century ago with a certain yellow concoction invented by Dr. Robert Cade, continued with the opening in 1995 of our biotechnology incubator, and flourishes today with a steady stream of UF patents and licenses, and with successful companies such as RTI Biologics, Xhale Innovations and Sinmat.

The Hub finally gathers under one roof venture capitalists, product designers, accountants, intellectual property law firms and our technology licensing experts; in a space meticulously designed to nurture their creativity. And the Hub finally gives us a place where a mere five-minute walk separates our visionary faculty from the professionals who make their ideas real.

The second side in the Innovation Hub cornerstone is a new, seamless Gainesville; a Gainesville where one cannot know where the university ends and the community begins.

It was not so long ago that UF and the city of Gainesville went about their business separately, if not in opposition. Their separation set the tone for a community divided over how to grow and prosper. Not surprisingly, the city's geography arranged itself in mirror image of this division.

How things have changed. Today, we have a shared faith in the power of innovation to bring economic prosperity while preserving Gainesville's distinctive quality of life. The Florida Innovation Hub is the first building in the partnership called Innovation Square that will close the last remaining physical gap between town and gown.

An empty 40 acres will be filled. Spatially, with technology startups, apartments, restaurants, galleries and local retail outlets. And metaphorically, with a culture that draws together artists and innovators with the human characteristic that unites them both: creativity.

The third side of the Innovation Hub cornerstone involves the state: It is the increased influence of UF innovation on the jobs, opportunities and life experience all Floridians deserve; one that should be every bit as bright and sustaining as the sun and surf that lured so many here.

UF and its spinoffs already contribute to Florida's high-tech industry, recognized not only for rapid growth, but also for high salaries and family-friendly workplaces.

Our biggest spinoff employs more than 700 men and women. Our startups together generate 8,000 jobs statewide, giving Florida the building blocks for a more diverse and resilient economy in the 21st Century.

To add to these opportunities, we must create more new businesses. The Hub answers this call. This incubator began accepting tenants a mere three months ago. Already no fewer than 15 technology companies have set up shop.

Companies named One Software, Generation Wy and Shadow Health: These are among the tenants that represent 15 more possibilities for companies that will someday build their own headquarters and employ their own staff of Floridians. And 15 more chances at Florida's version of a blockbuster like those that originated at universities elsewhere; Google, Facebook, Dell.

The final foundation of this historic cornerstone is the one that matters most. It is the enhanced potential for human good, from Gainesville to the world.

Glaucoma sufferers who've realized improved vision thanks to Trusopt, UF's glaucoma drug, understand that this potential is very real. Homeowners who have kept houses safe with Sentricon, the university's anti-termite system, know it too. So also our state realizes the benefit.

This month, we launch Florida's first industrial-scale production plant for a sustainable biofuel in Perry, Florida. That plant is made possible thanks only to a UF technology.

The Hub will build up UF, Gainesville and Florida, but its real meaning is the greater opportunity to change life for the better. For even if this is a long way off, we gain the faith today that we can be part of something greater than ourselves.

Many have worked tirelessly to promote UF innovation, smart urban growth and the local creative economy since long before we even had names for those things.

Whether you have worked toward this day for years, or you are new to Gainesville and the Florida Innovation Hub, you are now part of the mortar that will build this cornerstone to its full potential. I wish you well as you work to make Innovation Hub — the building and the idea — a historic landmark for our campus, our community, our state, and our human future.

Bernie Machen is president of the University of Florida. This Speaking Out is adapted from comments he made during Wednesday's dedication of UF's Innovation Hub.

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