Despite the miles that separate downtown Tampa, Westshore and University of South Florida, all three areas are critical to developing an economy built on innovation.
That was the takeaway from a tour organized by the Tampa Innovation Alliance, which is seeking to transform the area around University of South Florida into an innovation district that will create and attract investors, corporations with high-wage jobs and an educated workforce.
Mark Sharpe, executive director, Tampa Innovation Alliance, talks about innovation districts with Jim Shimberg and Jeff Vinik of the Tampa Bay Lightning

Inside Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik s conference room talking innovation exclusive Tampa Bay Business Journal
Mark Sharpe, executive director, Tampa Innovation Alliance, talks about innovation… more

Bruce Katz, a Brookings Institution vice president considered one of the world’s leading thinkers in innovation districts, was the keynote speaker at the alliance’s Innovation Gathering at MOSI Thursday night, after getting a firsthand look at USF’s research facilities and two other key economic centers in Tampa.
Katz joined Mark Sharpe, executive director of the alliance, and about half-a-dozen alliance backers in a van tour of the area, with stops at Tampa International Airport to talk with Joe Lopano, airport CEO, and at Amalie Arena for a discussion with Tampa Bay Lightning owner Jeff Vinik, who is planning a $2 billion development in downtown Tampa.
Tampa Bay Business Journal was invited along and got to be a fly on the wall during the conversations, including at the arena. Here’s their conversation, edited for brevity and clarity, which started when Vinik questioned Katz about the growing interest in innovation districts.
Katz: I think the biggest shift is around open innovation. The big companies are looking to collaborate with universities and with small or medium-size companies.
Vinik: What is the catalyst for it?
Katz: A lot of it is about speed to market. If you’ve got 100 researchers at a suburban park somewhere, you can only do so much, compared to crowdsourcing where you have 10,000 people both within a place or just doing stuff off the web. I think that’s the biggest impetus for this. You have open innovation, you need proximity, you need density, so where do you go? You go to the universities, you go to the downtowns. The real issue is can everyone figure out what their play is.
Vinik: How do you define [an innovation district]?
Katz: We define it as relatively small geographies where you have a mash-up of advanced research or medical districts, companies with a large volume of public or private R&D, and around that you’ve got startups, entrepreneurs, investors, faculty, students, incubators, accelerators. You’ve got the whole innovation ecosystem in a relatively small geography that begins to urbanize and be citified essentially. Most of them in the older parts of the country have transit. Transit is a huge piece of it.
Vinik: What does that mean?
Katz: They’ve got light rail or older subways … You can move around between nodes in the cities.
Ron Barton, assistant county administrator, Hillsborough County: Which is our Achilles heel. A lot of our assets are dispersed throughout the community. Many companies locate in the Westshore area because of the convenience of the airport. Of course, the downtown node. So connectivity issues are a little bit of an Achilles heel, as we all know, and we’ll be talking about those.
Vinik: Here we have the university, defense obviously, CENTCOM, SOCOM, all of that being here should be in the wheelhouse of what you’re talking about.
Katz: We spend a lot of time on military bases. They’re usually behind the fence. Now we’re trying to get them to essentially set up facilities right up against the fence. You’ve got to get the companies to basically be close to the labs and the military.
Jim Dean, CEO, Busch Gardens: How do you feel about geography? We’ve got MacDill that’s 5 miles away. We’ve got our district that’s 10 miles that way, and downtown and Westshore is close. We see ourselves as the third leg of this stool. Mr. Vinik and the mayor are working this leg here, then you have Westshore and Joe and the airport is the other leg. We see ourselves as the third leg that’s way undeveloped … We have 40,000-plus students at USF, and we’re pushing 5 million visitors at Busch Gardens and a lot of folks coming to our part of town, but you’ll see it when we get there. It’s not the most desirable place.
Katz: I think what matters first and foremost is the innovation platform and the extent to which your ecosystem is collaborative and networked. You do go into some states and everyone knows everyone, there’s total positive reinforcement. The state government is even part of the system. Then you go to other places and it’s remarkable how fragmented it is.
Vinik: Which it may be here.
Sharpe: That’s fair to say. I’m going to intentionally try to make sure the university area connects with our downtown, with Westshore. Even with this trip, we wanted to make sure everyone saw that we’re recognizing the geography and that what’s there is valuable and important and that we’re going to network it. The airport is very important to us at the university area. The university is an incredible place; when you see what we have there, from the VA hospital to the inventory of institutions there. But the downtown is critical to the success of the whole story. We want to make sure we’re connected well with downtown.
Vinik: Assuming we are somewhat fragmented and in the early stages, how does one get that going? Is it space or capital or awareness? What does it take to ignite this thing?
Katz: What we do in most places is create an audit … We’ve got about 50 metrics which will tell you, what’s your competitive advantage, what’s your critical mass, what’s your level of connectivity outside of the district, what’s the quality of your place and what’s the diversity, which could be across companies — large, medium or small — or people or whatever. Then you pretty much can tell fairly quickly how you compare and contrast with your peers.

Vinik: Are there areas in the country where they don’t have what it takes? When you do this audit, it comes up short?
Katz: There are quite a few actually. The consumption-driven metros, like Albuquerque, or Vegas, a bunch of those.
Barton: Not every urban redevelopment effort is an innovation effort. There are some taglines being used as innovation when it’s just traditional mixed-use redevelopment. There’s nothing wrong with it. It’s just they’re not the same concepts.
Vinik: I’m thinking where would one ideally locate this. I’m thinking of the Tampa Heights area, but it doesn’t have universities there, so maybe the USF area is the most logical.
Sharpe: I’m partial to the USF area, and I live in South Tampa, but the USF area has a concentration of people and activity. What it has not had is a place. World of Beer just opened on Fowler a couple of weeks ago and it’s packed. They’ve been dying for something like that. What we don’t have is the walkability. That’s a real challenge, but we’re looking at shuttles, buses, rideshare.
Vinik: But can you cordon off 2 square miles of it to make that a walkable area?
Sharpe: We’re going to start very concentrated, go with a small core area and make it work … The key is if we can find a way to get folks who come here to just stay for a day and then visit downtown, the play between the university area and the students who want to go downtown, but don’t want to drive. We’re looking at how we can get them here. There is a CSX rail line that runs between downtown and the university area. It’s underutilized. That rail line — owned by CSX, they would like to sell it — is available and those areas could be connected.
Vinik: In the context of this, we’re doing 40 acres all around this building. We may have an element within our acreage of innovation, but we just don’t have the size or the scale. We’re going to have two or three 30-story office buildings, but that’s not the right fit. But certainly connectivity between other areas is critical. We’re going to make this a very walkable environment, live-work-play, where hopefully younger people can easily get up to your area.
The other thing I do is travel all around, and I spread the word around in New York and Boston and Chicago and Toronto. It’s a lot of what I do now to bring jobs and companies down here and it’s resonating and we’re on the map and people are starting to realize this area is going to grow like crazy the next 10 or 20 years. So I want to see all areas around here thrive, not just what we’re developing.
Katz: I think this could be somewhat unique in the U.S., because you guys are thinking about this in regard to disparate areas and how they connect and you’re the first place that’s talked about an airport as a central piece of this. That’s really interesting.
Margie Manning is Finance Editor of the Tampa Bay Business Journal. She covers the Money beat.