Draper looks for solutions to energy problems

Draper Lab, the MIT spinoff whiz kids out of Cambridge, Mass., know how to make super-small electronic and advanced medical devices. The firm recently set up facilities both in St. Petersburg and Tampa, Fla. to expand their footprint in high-end security devices and biomedical innovations.

In St. Petersburg, Draper’s multichip module facility makes extremely downsized electronic components still able to do the jobs of far bigger and heavier components. That’s something that keenly interests the military and federal government, key Draper clients.

A separate Draper bioengineering center on the campus of the University of South Florida in Tampa is working with USF on, among other things, efforts at the nearby James A. Haley VA Medical Center to improve the treatment of traumatic brain injuries.

Draper vice president Len Polizzotto and St. Petersburg facility chief John R. Burns stopped by the St. Petersburg Times last week to discuss the company’s recent arrival in Florida and some of its cutting edge work. Here are some highlights from that conversation.

Draper’s invested $18 million in buying a St. Petersburg building and equipping it to make multichip modules for government clients. How’s it going after one and a half years?

Burns: We’ve been fortunate to find really talented local people. We’re up to 21 people with a third being staff process engineers and the other two thirds highly skilled technicians. Our work is almost semiconductor-like. We are on the forefront of miniaturization.

So how small are we talking about?

Polizzotto: The typical multichip module (MCM) reduces electronics by volume by a thousand. New technology is taking the next step and reducing it again by a factor of 10. Reducing weight is key. The less something weighs, for instance, the further it can fly. Or you can use that weight for other purposes.

Burns: Our sweet spot is in making high value-products, high-end electronics in niche areas, like maybe something for our special forces.

How much capacity for growth do you have in the St. Petersburg facility?

Burns: We’re running one shift now, but that’s already three times what we had in our Draper module facility in Massachusetts. It had gotten to the point in Cambridge where we had to choose one product need over another. Here we can add more shifts and scale up.

That’s specialized work. Have you been able to fill jobs with people here in Tampa Bay?

Burns: It’s not been a problem. We’ve hired a couple of folks from USF and tapped St. Petersburg College ó graduates with associate degrees in electronics ó as skilled technicians.

John, have you had a chance to settle into St. Petersburg yet?

Burns: My wife and I love the downtown waterfront. Right now, we’re renting, but we have started looking at some housing. There are some good deals out there.

And how’s the bioengineering center at USF in Tampa doing?

Polizzotto: Our Tampa center chief, Shankar Sundaram, could not be with us on this visit, but we have 15 full-time workers there plus four USF interns and two Draper Lab Fellows from the university. We already have more than $50†million in joint partnership proposals with USF, mostly in basic research.

In what areas is Draper focusing its resources?

Polizzotto: In three areas. Security, as shown by our St. Petersburg effort. Healthcare, reflected in our Tampa center. And energy. If we can improve the efficiency of, say, a coal plant by 5 percent, you would see enormous gains. It would be great to establish an energy center down here.

An energy center here?

Polizzotto: Yes, it would be the third leg of our stool in Florida. We’re already working with (St. Petersburg’s) Progress Energy Florida on efficiencies in energy production. But we have also submitted a proposal to the state to develop a smart energy micro-grid using Draper sensors and controls.

How might that work?

Polizzotto: The idea is to pick a neighborhood and bring in a thousand solar panels and transformers to share energy. One transformer would be shared by five houses. So if one of those five houses wanted to run a dryer, it could pull energy not just from its own solar panel but from all five shared panels.

You say the CEO of Draper Lab is tossing out the first pitch at a Tampa Bay Rays game?

Polizzotto: We made sure he’s warmed up to throw a strike.

Burns: We thought about adding a gyroscope to the ball to help, but it probably isn’t necessary.

About Draper Laboratory

Key areas: Security, health care, energy fields.

Employees: 1,400 total, 36 so far in Tampa Bay.

Florida facilities: Multichip module manufacturing on 16th Street in St. Petersburg; bioengineering center on Spectrum Boulevard on USF’s Tampa campus.