Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland has surpassed several milestones.
When lawmakers created Florida’s 12th public university in 2012, they christened it with a distinctly different mission than traditional academic institutions: develop cutting-edge curriculum to draw science, technology, math and engineering students to drive high-tech, high-skill economic development statewide.
The mission came with existential obstacles, including mandates to meet enrollment and accreditation milestones by do-or-die deadlines.
But when Randy Avent was named founding president of Florida Polytechnic University in Lakeland in 2012, the former MIT Lincoln Lab associate didn’t view the gig as a start-from-scratch academic quest. To Avent, instead, it was the quintessential entrepreneurial challenge.
“This is a startup university, something not many have done,” Avent says. “We modeled it as if it was a new business and have been through all the stages of a startup. Now, we’re now moving onto the growth phase.”
That phase — “Florida Poly 2.0” — launches Aug. 22 when the university begins its fifth fall semester. If Avent’s Florida Poly 2.0 vision comes together, the I-4 corridor, the surging area between Orlando and Tampa, could evolve into a high-tech nexus within a decade. Area officials support that vision, too, as does the Florida Legislature, which has funded the school with some $50 million over the past five years.
“We’re right on the cusp of what is coming,” Central Florida Development Council CEO Sean Malott says. “We see the Poly campus as our shining star for the future.”
PHASE ONE: SEED STAGE
Avent was associate vice chancellor of research at North Carolina State University when he was named Florida Poly president. The appointment came after Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed Senate Bill 1994, which earmarked $16 million to create Florida Poly from what had been University of South Florida Polytechnic.
The legislature had approved $33 million in 2011 for USF Polytechnic to build a 170-acre campus along I-4, between Orlando and Lakeland, and an Innovation, Science and Technology (IST) Building to house a supercomputer, 3-D printing lab, cyber gaming, cybersecurity lab, robotics lab, a big data lab and the world’s first completely digital university library.
‘There is no ‘How To Start A University For Dummies’ book.’ Florida Polytechnic University President Randy Avent
But when Avent arrived, it was a construction site. There were no students, no faculty, “not a single policy, not a single employee,” he says.
“This was the seed phase — the university had to define what it was going to be, who was going to own it,” Avent says, noting there was no template to follow. “There is no ‘How To Start A University for Dummies’ book.”
He says Florida Poly would stress “application pull,” not “technology push.”
Universities create technology and “push” it out, regardless of commercial applications, he explains. “In application pull, you ask, ‘How do I develop and implement technology to solve a problem?’”
Avent met with economic development councils and business leaders statewide. He asked them: “What market do you want to grow? We’ll put technologies around it.”
He solicited corporations and technical associations for input on curriculum, assistance with research and to secure internships for students.
From these forays, Florida Poly established collaborative relationships with more than 100 industry partners. The list includes Microsoft, Lockheed Martin, Mosaic, Cisco and Harris Corp.
PHASE TWO: START-UP
Florida Poly opened for classes Aug. 25, 2014 with 554 students.
“They were certainly risk-takers, coming to a university that wasn’t accredited,” Avent says.
It was his job to ensure the risk was worth it — or he wouldn’t have job.
In approving the new university, lawmakers required that it have an enrollment of 1,300 and be accredited by December 2017 or it would fold back into USF.
Some doubted it would survive. “It had a lot of things going against it,” recalls Malott, Florida Poly’s Director of Industry Partnerships before being named CEO of the Central Florida Development Council.
Long story short: “It thrived,” Malott says.
In June 2017, Florida Poly received accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges. Two months later, 400 new students arrived on campus, pushing enrollment to more than 1,450.
“In business, the turning point is usually when you capture enough of the market to survive,” Avent says. “For us, the turning point was earning accreditations so we wouldn’t be shut down.”
Florida Poly’s “market” is students — the biggest draw in developing partnerships with high-tech industries. “The companies come for the students,” Avent says. “Interns are a most valuable commodity.”
Accreditation meant “transitioning from students who couldn’t get financial aid to offering competitive scholarships and help in securing financial aid,” he adds. “We’re the only institution I know of that did this so quickly and did it from scratch.”
Florida Poly graduated its first 120 students in May. Avent says 94% had “a job in hand, were considering a job offer, or going onto grad school.”
The emphasis now, he adds, is “how do we mature the institution, build the institution we want to build, shape the student body?”
There is ample room to grow. “My university sits in the middle of a cow pasture,” Avent says. “My marketing people hate when I say that, but it’s an advantage for us.”
PHASE THREE: FLORIDA POLY 2.0
Avent plans to capitalize on the advantages.
The Florida Legislature this year approved Florida Poly’s $23.34 million request to build an Applied Research Center, which will feature laboratories, an entrepreneurship center and space for hosting research groups. It’s expected to be operational by 2021.
Up-and-running is Florida Poly’s Florida Industrial and Phosphate Research Institute, which studies mining and processing efficiencies. There’s also the Advanced Mobility Research Institute, which will work for SunTrax, the adjacent $42 million, 475-acre testing center for autonomous vehicles and “smart” tolling technologies.
SunTrax, a joint venture of Florida Poly, Florida Turnpike Enterprise, NASA, UCF, Florida A&M University and Lynx, will make Florida a leader in “a $100 billion industry” when it opens in 2019, Avent predicts.
SunTrax Administrator Paul Satchfield says the venture has drawn interest, and “in a five-year timeframe, with the school and SunTrax coming online,” high-tech development will “start to fill in” the I-4 corridor. “As Orlando creeps west and Tampa creeps east, this is right in the middle,” says Satchfield.
Which is why those cow pastures ringing Florida Poly’s campus would make an ideal “live-walk-play” high-tech community, says Avent.
Florida Poly wants to spur development of a research park to “co-locate” educational, governmental and corporate tenants. Something similar to North Carolina State University’s Centennial Campus.
“If we’re serious about growing high tech, we have to be serious about a research park,” Avent says. “This will be a catalyst for bringing financial and facility capital to this area.”
Many universities establish or are affiliated with research centers, but can rarely “influence” the creation of one next door. “Most universities are landlocked. You have to go down the road to create such a complex,” Avent says. “We have an opportunity to tear down the fences around the university and not be able to tell where it starts and stops.”
Malott says “there are multiple interested parties looking to bring that to fruition,” adding the same company that donated the land for Florida Poly, Williams Cos., wants to sell 4,400 acres it owns around the campus.
With the emergence of Florida Poly and SunTrax, and the rapid development around Lakeland Linder Airport, “I-4 frontage is our beachfront property,” Malott says. “We’re planting the seeds for this to take place.”
Challenges to the Florida Poly vision and growth plan remain, such as fundraising, which Avent says “is difficult when you don’t have alumni.” But, he adds, “the biggest threat five years down the road is taking on too much.”
That should be easier without start-up mandates.
“The legislature created the university to be the driving force in growing a high-tech economy,” says Avent. “We really take that to heart.”