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10 to watch in 2007

He connects SRI's many pieces

The new director in St. Petersburg faces a "steep challenge" to make the new marine research facility self-sufficient within five years.

By KRIS HUNDLEY
Published February 25, 2007


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photo
[Times photo: Bob Croslin]
Larry Langebrake has his hands full getting SRI-St. Petersburg organized.

With the addition of three little letters to his title, Larry Langebrake's life shifted into overdrive.

On Jan. 2, Langebrake, 48, went from being director of the University of South Florida's Center for Ocean Technology to being director of SRI-St. Petersburg.

Since becoming head of the renowned Silicon Valley research institute's newest operation, Langebrake has been going nonstop. Designing a new 40,000-square-foot facility. Hiring 20 people and preparing for 20 more. Talking to companies about commercializing his group's research. Completing contracts involving port security. Keeping on top of his own two research projects. Attending countless meetings.

"Clearly, SRI brings a level of recognition we didn't have before," he said, sitting at a desk awash with business cards and papers.

Langebrake, who has both an undergraduate and master's degree in electrical engineering, worked in the aerospace industry before being recruited to USF 13 years ago. Peter Betzer, head of the College of Marine Science, wanted engineers who could turn researchers' ideas into devices that could function in harsh marine environments. Langebrake, a small-town Ohio boy who got his first Erector set at age 3, was intrigued. Within a decade, Langebrake built the Center for Ocean Technology into a staff of about 80 who worked closely with USF's marine scientists.

"A lot of places, if you mixed engineers and researchers, it would be like oil and water," said Langebrake, who has designed autonomous underwater vehicles and marine sensors, but never found time to get his dive license. "Here it was a very compatible mix."

But Langebrake, wiry and restless, wanted more. He was frustrated at efforts to commercialize the center's inventions. And he feared outsiders might steal the ideas and get to market first. Langebrake said what he envisioned was some kind of academic halfway house. What he found was SRI International Inc. in Menlo Park, Calif.

SRI, which first sent an official to visit USF in spring 2004, immediately knew how to handle Langebrake's intellectual property concerns. And SRI, a 60-year-old institution responsible for developing everything from the computer mouse to HDTV, was experienced at creating commercial spinoffs.

"The story wrote itself," said Langebrake of discussions which quickly moved from using SRI as an adviser to becoming part of SRI. "I think the light bulb went off over our collective heads after we'd batted ideas back and forth for a while. Why reinvent the wheel when SRI really does this well?"

Now Langebrake has to make SRI-St. Petersburg, launched with more than $30-million in public funds, self-sufficient within five years. "It's a steep challenge," he acknowledged.

Cross-pollination between SRI and its newest employees is already occurring. A researcher in St. Petersburg wants to adapt his underwater sensors to support SRI's upper atmospheric testing project in Antarctica. An artificial muscle developed by SRI is being considered for an underwater power-generation system overseas.

Langebrake, who cycles and pilots his own plane for fun, is beginning to realize just how much his life has changed. Because SRI is temporarily leasing space from USF, he's still sitting in the same trailer where he has worked since 2002. But his viewpoint has changed considerably.

"Now we have a much broader field of play," said Langebrake, who expects SRI-St. Petersburg to work with universities throughout the state and companies worldwide. "We're seeing things we didn't see before. And this can't help but put St. Petersburg on the map as a center for marine research excellence throughout the country and the world."

Kris Hundley can be reached at hundley@sptimes.com  or 727 892-2996.

[Last modified February 25, 2007, 05:47:34]


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