In Your Face

By Hannah Wallace July 31, 2004

When photographer Gene Pollux came in with images for our cover story about METI, a Sarasota company that makes patient simulators for medical educators (p. 24), he said he had to face the computerized dummies away from the camera. "They were too lifelike," he said. "They look like they're staring right at you. Readers would feel uncomfortable." METI CEO Lou Oberndorf would probably consider Pollux's squeamishness a victory. Those incredibly lifelike dummies are supposed to make medical students, nurses and paramedics feel like they're practicing on real patients.

Much of this issue is devoted to such cutting-edge technology, from how it's rapidly changing local businesses and lives to whether we have what it takes to attract high-tech companies to what has been a resort and retirement community. Actually, while experts debate that issue, the companies have been quietly arriving-already, 561 high-tech companies employing 7,164 people in Sarasota and Manatee, according to the Florida Technology Corridor Council. Some of these companies, like METI, are quite sophisticated and compete in a global market, providing those high-tech, high-wage jobs economic development committees want. They also add creative capital and welcome diversity to our traditionally homogenous region: Oberndorf says his computer engineering staff looks like the United Nations.

How do we attract more companies like METI? Government can play a role. For example, Oberndorf credits former Florida Education Commissioner Betty Castor and U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris for helping to launch METI and providing it with new markets. Financial incentives can help, too-Gov. Jeb Bush lured tech giant Scripps Research Institute to Florida with $310 million in federal grant money approved by the state legislature. And on a smaller scale, we can make our communities more appealing to high-tech workers, as Sarasota County and local Startup Florida are doing by working together to establish free wireless hot spots in the city, so that people can open their laptops along Main Street and surf the Web-or work-on a pretty Sarasota day.

And according to many tech experts, we have a powerful secret weapon in the battle to attract high-tech companies. Of all things, it's-sorry, young professionals-our concentration of wealthy retirees who are not only possible investors but have decades of entrepreneurial and management experience to offer. Take if from entrepreneur Chris Fountas, whose digital media technology was funded and, just as importantly, guided, by Startup Florida's retired angels (p. xx) "They didn't just bring dollars," says Fountas, "they brought a team of folks with experience who know the ups and downs of starting a company."

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