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From Fighting Shoplifting To Pioneering Gene Therapies, The Startups In This Accelerator Are On The Front Lines Of “Super Creativity”


When it comes to studying the nation’s shoplifting epidemic, Richelle Ross and Diego Rodriguez have a front-row seat. Working under the guidance of Read Hayes, a research scientist and criminologist at University of Florida, they are part of the Loss Prevention Research Council. It’s located in a high-tech lab inside of The Hub, part of UF Innovate, a business accelerator at the University of Florida that I visited recently.

With baby formula one of the top five most shoplifted items in stores, “shoplifting is not only a monetary issue, but also a health and safety issue,” said Rodriguez, who graduated from University of Florida in 2019 with bachelor’s degrees in psychology and criminology and is now marketing manager for the Council. Often, stolen formula is adulterated and then resold, he explained.

The for-profit Council collaborates with more than 60 of the biggest retailers in the country—among them some arch-rivals who have come together to fight the mounting crisis—to study shoppers’ behavior and determine if, for instance, putting up a sign saying “You’re on camera” will reduce shoplifting. Its team relies on both sophisticated tech tools, such as eye-tracking cameras, as well as randomized field experimentation, CCTV footage review, statistical analysis and interviews with former shoplifters to arrive at its findings. A giant virtual reality wall offers the researchers a constant view of the floor of a local big box store, where they can monitor shoppers’ behavior in real time.

Being located inside of UF Innovate, the university’s innovation ecosystem in Gainesville’s innovation district, has helped the Council come together with other like-minded individuals and companies to accelerate its work. “It’s a community here,” Ross said. “Everything we do is collaborative.”

The Council and the other startups within UF Innovate, as well as the accelerator itself, are vivid examples of what creativity and innovation expert James Taylor, based in Scotland, describes as SuperCreativity—a phenomenon that many business leaders are trying to foster in today’s fast-changing business environment. It is a concept that goes beyond creativity or innovation alone.

“SuperCreativity is the augmentation of our individual creative work through collaboration with humans or machines,” says Taylor. “It’s about augmenting our imagination and doing better creative work through human+machine collaboration. Fundamentally, though, it’s about moving away from the outdated 20th century notion of the lone creative genius and towards embracing the 21st century reality that creativity is collaborative, creativity is a team sport.”

UF Innovate has won nine international awards, and has been chosen for InBIA’s Soft Landings program, which recognizes facilities that are particularly helpful to foreign startups seeking what amounts to a crash course in the business practices of a country to which they have moved. The Hub is a centerpiece. It was originally a 48,000-square-foot facility, funded by an $8.2 million grant from the federal Economic Development Administration (EDA), and a $5 million commitment from the university. The EDA followed with another $8 million grant after it opened in 2011, and the university invested another $9 million in 2015. An expansion opened in 2018, more than doubling the facility’s size to 100,000 square feet. Today, The Hub houses 63 startups with 500 team members, according to Courtney Janka, facilities manager. They’re involved in industries from satellites to 3D printing and gaming. “Everyone is super-collaborative,” she said.

UF Innovate also includes Sid Martin Biotech, a 32,000-square-foot biotechnology incubator in Alachua, Fla., about 15 minutes away, that has brought 22 wet labs to the rural area, raising the total number of wet labs in UF Innovate to 27. Sid Martin has invested in nearly $2 million worth of scientific equipment that the startups share, lowering the barriers to entry.

Royalties from Gatorade, invented at the university by physician and researcher Robert F. Cade, M.D., and received through the Gatorade Trust, have contributed significantly to the funding for UF Innovate. The university gets about $20 million a year that go to technology transfer, noted Janka.

The results of efforts like these have been considerable, underlining the power of a collaborative model:

· Startups in the two facilities have attracted nearly $11 billion in investments and created more than 8,000 jobs, mostly local, with wages that are, on average 34% higher than average for the state of Florida.

· Since UF Innovate’s inception, clients have filed 359 patents and 268 have licensed technology developed at University of Florida.

· Eight companies, among them Thermofisher Scientific, a supplier of scientific instrumentation, and Arranta Bio, which provides manufacturing expertise to companies creating advanced therapies, have done initial public offerings.

· Many of the startups have raised capital, among them Bioenergy International ($146 million raised), a trade publication that covers biomass-to-energy value chains, and gene-therapy developer Aavanti Bio($107 million). 12% of the state’s biotech companies got their start at UF Innovate.

Creating an environment with results like this has required the collaboration of several leaders working on many fronts. Jackson Streeter, MD, director of UF Innovate Ventures, has worked with Florida’s business community to build the funding ecosystem, which was limited, given Florida’s history as an agriculture hub. Meanwhile, Jim O’Connell, assistant vice president of commercialization, has worked not only on commercializing technology discovered at the university but also with local leaders to make sure local housing supports the startup ecosystem and with the university administration to ensure the facility continues to thrive.

For an accelerator to thrive, “two things need to be in place” O’Connell told me during my visit. “The administration needs to be supportive and appreciate that it’s a valuable contribution to society.” And, he adds, every ecosystem needs a champion in a role like his “who believes in capitalism.”

O’Connell fits the bill. An aeronautical engineer by training, he previously directed the tech transfer office at University of Miami and was director of the Michigan Venture Center at University of Michigan. He also served in the Air Force for 10 years as a helicopter pilot and is a big believer in the American dream. “You can come here with nothing and become a billionaire and impact the world,” he says.

Although 84% of the startups at UF Innovate are viable after five years, O’Connell recognizes that the chances any individual startup on the planet will succeed are relatively low. UF Innovate aims to improve those odds through support, coaching and collaboration. “Things will only happen in a timely manner if you have a team,” he says.

Beyond data on IPOs launched and patents filed, UF Innovate measures its success through two uncommon metrics, on the premise that looking only at capital raised by the startups may overlook other critical aspects of innovation.

One key data point is collaboration among the startups – an idea that the Kauffman Foundation has been promoting as a spark to innovation. In 2021, 26% of the tenants at UF Innovate were working together in some business capacity, and the latest data showing that number is closer to one-third. “Collaboration means we have to get together and do something,” explains Elliott Welker, assistant director of Sid Martin.

The other key metric is the percentage of diverse founders, currently 51%. “Some traditional metrics may have bias in them,” explained Karl LaPan, director of incubation services at UF Innovate, who was previously president and CEO of NIIC, a nonprofit entrepreneurial support organization in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, that established a Women’s Entrepreneurial Opportunity Center and built a portfolio of inclusive support grants to improve underrepresented groups’ access to entrepreneurial services.

The foundation of what UF Innovate offers is what its leaders call the “Excellence Diamond” – business-building programs in areas such as raising capital and finding customers, scientific equipment and amenities that allow startups to scale up quickly, shared service support and operators who run the incubator like a business. But there are other elements of the ecosystem that bring the founders together, like a food truck court outside The Hub, a community herb garden, and “Innovation Hours,” where founders can mingle.

In addition to incubating startups, The Hub has also become home to the professional services businesses that support them. Neil Israel and his wife Suzie Israel co-founded Sketchology Studios, a company based at The Hub since January. After living in Dallas, they moved to Gainesville to be closer to family; his sister-in-law is a professor at University of Florida, and his brother works in the compliance group. “My parents came down to be with them,” says Israel. “We followed the flock.”

Sketchology Studios does animation marketing for nonprofits and biotech firms that are part of UF Innovate, such as Inspira Therapeutics. Inspira Therapeutics is developing therapies for diabetes and other autoimmune diseases that “retrain” the host’s immune system to “accept” misdirected targets the body’s immune system attacks. “Especially because I’m going into this new market, being around people who are already in the market has been incredible,” says Israel.

Israel says he’s passionate about working with biotech companies because he is a type 1 diabetic. “I am alive because of biotech,” he says.

He believes the shared lab space at Sid Martin will continue to attract the type of promising companies he wants to serve. “It’s that shared concept—it takes a village,” he says. “It really does help young companies that are trying to collaborate.”

Israel says the leaders of The Hub and Sid Martin have also helped his business pick up traction by making introductions and suggesting startups for his outreach. “This is where the collaboration with Inspira came from,” he says. “I’m in ongoing negotiations with another one. Being in this environment is very helpful.”

It will be interesting to see where operating in the “super creative” atmosphere at UF Innovate will take him—and the many entrepreneurs working alongside of him. With UF Innovate’s leadership tracking the progress on these businesses in many key areas, its model for local collaboration could well become one that other champions of entrepreneurship will want to replicate in the future.

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