When it comes to studying the country’s shoplifting epidemic, Richelle Ross and Diego Rodriguez have a front row seat. They work under the direction of Read Hayes, a research scientist and criminologist at the University of Florida, and are part of the Loss Prevention Research Council. It’s in a high-tech lab at The Hub, part of UF Innovate, a business accelerator at the University of Florida that I recently visited.
With baby food among the top five most commonly stolen items in stores, “shoplifting is not just a money issue, but a health and safety issue,” said Rodriguez, who graduated from the University of Florida in 2019 with a bachelor’s degree 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 is working with more than 60 of the country’s largest retailers — including some arch-rivals who have come together to combat the deepening crisis — to study shopper behavior and determine whether, say, hanging saying “You’re on camera” from a sign will reduce shoplifting. The team relies on advanced technical tools, such as eye-tracking cameras, as well as randomized field experiments, camera image review, statistical analysis and interviews with former shoplifters to arrive at its findings. A giant virtual reality wall provides the researchers with a constant view of the floor of a local big-box store, where they can track shopping behavior in real time.
Being within 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. “All we do is collaborate.”
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-paced times . – changing business environment. It is a concept that goes beyond creativity or innovation alone.
“SuperCreativity is the enhancement of our individual creative work through collaboration with humans or machines,” says Taylor. “It’s about expanding our imaginations and doing better creative work through human-machine collaboration. Essentially, though, it’s about moving away from the outdated 20th century idea of the lone creative genius and embracing the reality of the 21st century that creativity is collaboration, creativity is a team sport.”
UF Innovate has won nine international awards and 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 they have moved to. The hub is a center point. 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 pledge from the university. The EDA followed with another $8 million grant after opening in 2011, and the university invested another $9 million in 2015. An expansion opened in 2018, more than doubling the size of the facility to 100,000 square foot. Today, The Hub houses 63 startups with 500 team members, according to Courtney Janka, facility manager. They are involved in industries from satellites to 3D printing and gaming. “Everyone is super cooperative,” she said.
UF Innovate also includes Sid Martin Biotech, a 32,000 square foot biotechnology incubator in Alachua, Florida, about 15 minutes away, which has brought 22 wet labs to the countryside, bringing 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 barriers to entry.
Gatorade royalties, invented in college by physician and researcher Robert F. Cade, MD, and received through the Gatorade Trust, have contributed significantly to the funding of UF Innovate. The university gets about $20 million a year for technology transfers, Janka noted.
The results of such efforts are significant, underlining the power of a collaborative model:
Startups in the two facilities have attracted nearly $11 billion in investment and created more than 8,000 jobs, mostly local, with wages averaging 34% higher than the Florida state average.
· Since UF Innovate was founded, customers have filed 359 patents and 268 customers have licensed technology developed at the University of Florida.
· Eight companies, including Thermofisher Scientific, a supplier of scientific instruments, and Arranta Bio, which provides manufacturing expertise to companies developing advanced therapies, have made an IPO.
Many of the startups have raised capital, including Bioenergy International ($146 million raised), a trade journal covering the biomass energy value chains, and gene therapy developer Aavanti Bio ($107 million). 12% of the state’s biotech companies started at UF Innovate.
Creating an environment with results like this required the collaboration of several leaders who worked on many fronts. Jackson Streeter, MD, president of UF Innovate Ventures, has worked with Florida’s corporate community to build the financing ecosystem, which was limited given Florida’s history as an agricultural center. Meanwhile, Jim O’Connell, assistant vice president of commercialization, has worked not only to commercialize technology discovered at the university, but also with local leaders to ensure that local housing supports the startup ecosystem and with the university administration to ensure to ensure that the facility continues to thrive .
For an accelerator to thrive, “there must be two things,” O’Connell told me during my visit. “The administration should be supportive and appreciate it as 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 led the engineering transfer office at the University of Miami and served as director of the Michigan Venture Center at the University of Michigan. He also served 10 years in the Air Force as a helicopter pilot and is a big believer in the American dream. “You can come here with nothing and become a billionaire and influence the world,” he says.
While 84% of startups at UF Innovate are viable after five years, O’Connell recognizes that the chances of an individual startup on the planet are relatively small. UF Innovate wants to improve those opportunities through support, coaching and collaboration. “Only if you have a team will it happen on time,” he says.
In addition to data on launched IPOs and patents pending, UF Innovate measures its success through two unusual metrics, assuming that looking only at capital raised by the startups may overlook other critical aspects of innovation.
A key data point is the collaboration between the startups — an idea the Kauffman Foundation promotes as a spur to innovation. In 2021, 26% of UF Innovate tenants worked together in some business capacity, and according to the latest data, that number is closer to a third. “Collaboration means we have to get together and do something,” explains Elliott Welker, Sid Martin’s deputy director.
The other key metric is the percentage of diverse founders, currently at 51%. “Some traditional metrics can be biased,” explains Karl LaPan, director of incubation services at UF Innovate, who was previously president and CEO of NIIC, a nonprofit entrepreneurial support organization based in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, who 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 facilities that help startups scale quickly, shared service support and operators who run the incubator as a business. But there are other elements of the ecosystem that bring the founders together, such as a food truck field 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 firms 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 their family; his sister-in-law is a professor at the University of Florida and his brother works in the compliance group. “My parents came down to be with them,” Israel says. “We followed the herd.”
Sketchology Studios does animation marketing for nonprofits and biotech companies that are part of UF Innovate, such as Inspira Therapeutics. Inspira Therapeutics develops therapies for diabetes and other autoimmune diseases that “retrain” the host’s immune system to “accept” misdirected attacks from the body’s immune system. “Especially as I’m entering this new market, it’s incredible to be around people who are already in the market,” says Israel.
Israel says he has a passion for working with biotech companies because he has type 1 diabetes. “I live thanks to biotech,” he says.
He believes the shared lab space at Sid Martin will continue to attract the type of high-potential companies he wants to serve. “It’s that shared concept — it takes a village,” he says. “It really helps young companies trying to work together.”
Israel says The Hub leaders and Sid Martin have also helped his company gain traction by making introductions and suggesting startups for its outreach. “This is where the collaboration with Inspira came from,” he says. “I am negotiating with another. Being in this environment is very helpful.
It will be interesting to see where working in the “super-creative” atmosphere at UF Innovate will take him – and the many entrepreneurs who work alongside him. With UF Innovate’s leadership tracking the progress of these companies in many key areas, the local collaboration model may well become one that other entrepreneurship champions will want to replicate in the future.