Naval Support Activity Panama City – A Vital Piece of the Region’s Tech Ecosystem

TechFarms CEO is keynote speaker during Month of the Military Diver

Written by: Stephanie Nusbaum

June 7, 2019

No vision of Northwest Florida’s technological past — or future — is complete without the inclusion of Naval Support Activity Panama City.

The base, which encompasses dive training, amphibious warfare, underwater technology, mine countermeasures and more, recently celebrated its rich technological history during May’s Month of the Military Diver.

“The Month of the Military Diver is basically an educational outreach just to let local area students get some exposure to the type of work that we do and the availabilities that are out there that relate to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM),” said Navy Diver 1st Class Jason Myers, this year’s event organizer.

At the event, more than 400 area students were exposed to the technology used and developed on base by tenant units including the Naval Experimental Dive Unit (NEDU), the Naval Diving and Salvage Training Center (NDSTC), the base fire department, and Naval Surface Warfare Command Panama City Division (NSWC PCD). Outside organizations such as TechFarms also participated.

See photos from the 2019 Year of the Military Diver from the Panama City News Herald:

The U.S. Navy has had a presence along St. Andrew Bay for almost 80 years, starting with the opening of a base in 1942. Three years later, the first iteration of NSA PC arrived, when the U.S. Navy Mine Countermeasures Station was transferred from Solomons, Maryland, to Panama City on July 20, 1945.

But the cementing of the base as the hub of dive training and technology came in 1992.

“Over the years, the Navy expanded and had dive schools in Virginia, San Diego, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and Panama City,” said Stephen Zentz, Command Master Chief of the Naval Diving and Salvage Training Center, one of NSA PC’s tenant units. “In 1992, they consolidated all those dive schools, and we became the sole military dive school for all deep-sea divers.”

The change ultimately made NDSTC the primary training school for all military divers.

“Every service sends their personnel here for dive training with the exception of Naval Special Warfare and Special Forces commands,” Zentz said. “We have 23 different courses of instruction, anything from submarine scuba diver school to deep-sea diver hard hat school, EOD diver, Marine Corps diver, Air Force Pararescue — you name it.”

But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The base, which spans 657 waterfront acres, has tenant units that deal specifically with Naval vehicles, explosive ordnance disposal, research and development, amphibious warfare, and more. It employs about 3,000 military and civilian personnel and has a $600 million annual impact on the Panhandle.

Base personnel have produced hundreds of inventions and technological advances, from unmanned underwater vehicles to dive masks with augmented vision technology — somewhat similar to Ironman’s mask.

That’s where TechFarms CEO Steve Millaway’s interest lies. As an entrepreneur aiming to help build NW Florida into a tech hub, the base personnel and the technologies they’re developing represents a considerable resource.

“NSA PC is extremely important for the region’s tech future,” Millaway said. “They have nearly 1,000 scientists, engineers and physicists. For those that retire and want to leverage their skills in the private sector, we’re hoping that the tech ecosystem we’re helping to expand will provide them with lots of new job opportunities.”

In fact, the first company to “graduate” from TechFarms’ incubator program was Mine Survival Inc. (MSI), a company started by a former Navy diver and a civilian engineer. The duo has invented and patented a wearable surface rebreather vest that provides emergency oxygen in mining, firefighting, and military chembio applications. MSI has also developed a sophisticated breathing simulator that is now being purchased from companies all around the world.

“(The base) is ground zero in Bay County in terms of skilled engineering types,” Millaway said. “Skilled civilians and ex-military are NW Florida’s greatest tech resource and we need to do a better job helping these retired individuals continue their careers either as entrepreneurs or by joining existing companies that are looking for talent. There’s also plenty of part-time advisor and mentor positions for those who are retiring and still want to stay connected and help others in our communities.”

The base has affected the civilian world in other ways, too, such as bringing civilian ideas and inventions to reality.

“NEDU, they test every piece of equipment” before it is approved for military use, Zentz said. “Military and civilian technology. If we’re going to stay on the cutting edge of diving, the only way we can do it is for that equipment to make its way to NEDU. They do function tests and make sure that it’s safe, that they can push it out to the fleet. It’s huge.”

Myers said although the base can’t necessarily share ideas with the public while they’re being studied, base technology has had far-reaching effects.

“We helped set the standard on modern dive tables — that happens over at the Naval Experimental Dive Unit,” he said. “Some of our studies are published in journals, and our dive manuals are available on the internet, so anyone can get on there and utilize that and learn the fundamentals or at least have a reference to the fundamentals. We’re constantly trying to advance, and we kind of learn from others what they’ve done, how they developed, and then we share what we’ve developed.”

After seeing TechFarms technology on display and hearing Millaway’s keynote speech during Month of the Military Diver, Zentz said though much of the Navy’s research is protected, places like TechFarms can help bridge the gap.

“TechFarms is innovative,” he said. “(Millaway) is an inventor that has developed some unique items, and because of that he helps promote innovative thought and hires individuals for that purpose. I think it’s awesome; I think people were fascinated with it.

“I love the idea of (Millaway) saying he wanted to make NW Florida the next Silicon Valley. It’s people like him with his vision that can make that happen.”

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