It's in our Genes

By staff July 1, 2003

Knowledge is power, all right, especially in economic circles, with companies-and cities-now competing for the highly educated, innovative workers who come up with winning new ideas and products. At a recent luncheon at the Ritz-Carlton, Richard Florida told Sarasota business leaders that many economists believe such "knowledge" workers are now the source of most economic growth. Florida, who drew attention to the trend in his 2002 book, The Rise of the Creative Class, said those workers are drawn to cities that are exceptionally open to diversity, such as San Francisco, Boston or Austin.

The "creatives," as economic developers like to call them, value independence and looseness, whether in a corporate structure or the khakis and sneakers they often wear to work. Self-driven and absorbed by what they do, they work long hours; and when they do take a break, they look for other absorbing and creative activities-hanging out in an all-night coffee bar, hearing local bands play new music, trying out the latest extreme sport. To attract such workers, Florida told his mostly white, conventional-looking audience-not a pair of khakis or sneakers in sight-cities need to support diversity in lifestyle, race and experiences.

And though he cautioned that a creative climate can't be imposed from above, that hasn't kept the Sarasota Committee for Economic Development from starting to study how our conservative community can land more of these independent spirits and the profitable products and ideas they generate.

But even if our officials don't start underwriting 24-7 coffee bars or hip-hop clubs, creative people are coming to Sarasota. Thanks to our beautiful weather and beaches, Sarasota has a long tradition of attracting visionaries and innovators, from circus magnate John Ringling to the famous writers, painters and architects who built our reputation as an artist's colony. And though the price of real estate means impecunious artists can no longer settle along Siesta Beach, Susan Burns discovered that plenty of talented newcomers still wash up on our shores. Her "People to Watch" includes a dozen diverse characters, among them a novelist, professor, artist and architect and several high-tech entrepreneurs.

One of those, Tony Frudakis, founded DNA Print Genomics here four years ago. "Sarasota is so homogeneous it's probably the last place on earth a technical entrepreneur would think of," he admits. But Frudakis' father, who lives here, helped him find local venture funding, so he followed the money instead of the high-tech herd. Besides, adds the 36-year-old molecular biologist, "I hate the lemming approach." (Question for Richard Florida: Since creative workers reject conventional wisdom, does this mean the truly creative will soon start breaking from the pack and choosing places like Sarasota over San Francisco?)

DNA Print Genomics is one of "a handful" of U.S. companies engaged in pioneering research, says Frudakis. As scientists learn more about our genetic make-up, they can predict how individuals will react to many drugs and treatments. Already the company has found genetic markers that reveal whether a woman will respond to Taxol, which is frequently used to treat ovarian cancer. In 10 years, he says, such "personalized medicine" will be everyday reality, and his company hopes to be among those developing what he calls the new "laser-guided weapons" of medicine instead of today's "dumb bombs."

Another product, DNA Witness, can analyze racial ancestry from DNA and should soon reveal eye color, height and skin tone as well. Although the product is aimed at forensic investigators, the company is generating some much-needed income by marketing the racial ancestry test to consumers.

For $158, you can learn what percentage of your ancestry comes from four major subgroups-Sub-Saharan African, East Asian, Indo-European and Native American. The test is selling briskly over the Internet, says Frudakis, especially to amateur genealogists. Like many of them, he was surprised by his results; he would have predicted he was pure European but showed up eight percent Native American as well. ("I watch cowboy and Indian movies differently now," he says.)

The company has had no trouble recruiting scientists to Sarasota, he says, and it's enjoyed more attention than it would have in a town full of tech firms. In turn, DNA Print Genomics has elevated Sarasota's national profile, since it's been featured in such media as The New York Times, the CBS Evening News and most recently, on The View with Barbara Walters. The real challenge is not doing business in Sarasota, Frudakis says, but trying to raise funds for medical technology-"it's easier to get investors excited about cell phones"-and "to stay alive in a market that's trying to kill companies."

And that's just one of our inventive, unconventional new creatives! You'll meet the rest in this issue, along with some standouts in another Sarasota creative tradition, as Kay Kipling announces the winners of her annual Theater Awards beginning on page 48. Tony Frudakis may not be able to test for it-yet; but clearly, artistry and innovation are all over this city's DNA.

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