County seeks more input in USF's tech incubator

Eyebrows are raised by a privacy software firm that has the Internet porn industry as a client.

Published October 19, 2007

TAMPA - Hillsborough County wants more input with the University of South Florida's technology incubator, after learning this week that one of the businesses there counts the Internet pornography industry among its clientele.

County Commissioner Mark Sharpe said the county's economic development department is in talks with USF Research Foundation chief Rod Casto to boost county representation in incubator operations. The Research Foundation oversees the incubator.

One possibility would be for a county representative to sit on the foundation board.

Sharpe said he suggested the county input after reading a St. Petersburg Times report this week about PrivacyView Software LLC, which develops programs that encrypt and mask computer files and Internet surfing histories.

The technology can be used to protect financial records and prevent identity theft, but from the moment the 4-year-old company touted its product at a 2004 adult entertainment trade show, its core clientele was obvious.

"The days of Internet porn consumers being 'busted' by their spouses or worse yet, their children, will eventually be a thing of the past," began the press release announcing PrivacyView's software. "Now your members can surf with 100 percent confidence that their adult surfing habits will not be discovered."

A public interest

PrivacyView moved into the incubator several months later, unbeknownst to the larger university community and elected officials who voted to give the incubator support money.

The city has given $300,000 to the incubator since 2005, and the county has given $1.2-million.

"Any company that's receiving public funds, there's a public interest there," said Commissioner Sharpe. "We want to protect the free flow of ideas; that's what an incubator is about. But this is also public dollars. Putting some controls in the process, from the perspective of the county, is important."

Casto said in an e-mail that he doesn't want to comment on the county's push for more input until he sees a more formal proposal.

Bruce Register, the county's corporate business development manager, said the talks are in the preliminary stage, and he is awaiting more direction from county administrator Pat Bean.

Register stressed the incubator's place in the "gray realm" between the public and private sphere means the county has to walk "a fine line."

The companies in the incubator are private, but they are benefitting from the county's public dollars.

"We need to provide a little more input, but we have to be careful, because we can't make a private-sector entity public," Register said. "It's a fine line."

The incubator is housed at USF's Research Park, where officials are pushing to raise the university's profile in bioscience and biotechnology research.

Businesses work with USF faculty members and students on research and business plans while benefiting from relatively cheap office space, shared labs and other support services.

Officials concerned

Incubator tenants range from antibiotic developers and a laser printing company to technology consultants.

PrivacyView's software allows users to mask and encrypt Web sites, plus downloaded pictures and movies, without detection. The software costs $39.95. The company also offers a $9.95 monthly service that allows users to visit sites without their Internet providers' addresses being identified by the sites they visit.

Casto told the Times that he is proud of PrivacyView. But this week's publicity heightened concerns among elected officials who weren't aware of PrivacyView or its target market.

"We're just looking at steps we might be able to take in the future to maybe improve the oversight of the public expenditure of money," Sharpe said. "It's a way for us to make sure we're all of the same mind."

Register said the county already has input in some of the policy decisions made by groups like the Tampa Bay Partnership and the chamber of commerce's committee of 100, he said. The county's future relationship with USF's incubator could end up being similar to that.

Might the county have a say in what kind of future companies move into the incubator?

"I would think so, yes," Register said. "If those companies are benefiting from county dollars."

Shannon Colavecchio-Van Sickler can be reached at svansickler@sptimes.com or 813 226-3403.