Leading Question

By Hannah Wallace July 31, 2004

It might sound far-fetched to most of us, but not to William Atkinson, author of Nanocosm: Nanotechnology and the Big Changes Coming from the Inconceivably Small. At a Sarasota County Committee for Economic Development luncheon recently, he said he could envision "turning Sarasota into what I hope is a hub of nanotechnology activity." (Nanotechnology is a science that works at the molecular level and may one day produce body armor that bullets can never penetrate, tennis balls that never lose their bounce and air conditioning systems as small as a sugar cube.)

Atkinson asserted that we have the transportation system, the prosperous economy and the intellectual talent to attract the highly mobile risk takers that created Silicon Valley and tech hubs everywhere. According to data from the Florida High Tech Corridor, we have about 561 technology companies employing 7,164 people in the two-county region.

Still, every community wants these companies, and most high-tech hubs surround major research universities or were born of spin-offs of major companies such as Microsoft. (Gov. Jeb Bush hopes Scripps Research Institute in Palm Beach County will spawn spin-offs.) So is Atkinson dreaming?

Not completely. Attracting tech companies requires a combination of ingredients and no region has all of them. Here's what other experts have to say.

David Day, director of the University of Florida's office of technology licensing, hooks up entrepreneurs and venture capitalists with patented research at the university. He says there are five ingredients to creating a robust technology economy: a top-notch research base, often anchored by major universities; technology transfer professionals-the lawyers, accountants and bankers who know how to set up business plans for start-ups; incubators and research parks; money; and management. While Gainesville has the intellectual talent, he says, Sarasota and Manatee have the money and management: "That's your strong suit. You have extremely successful executives who are getting tired of golf. A management team is the key ingredient."

Rich Swier of Startup Florida, a technology incubator in Sarasota's downtown Rosemary District, says Silicon Valleys with monster companies such as Microsoft or Cisco will never be created again. "There's a trend across the country that niche companies are taking over and doing it better than the big companies," he says. "We should be part of that trend." Swier says our relaxed lifestyle, lower cost of living and doing business, good government climate and small-town feel are a perfect mix for techies. And our independently wealthy entrepreneurs are friendly toward start-ups and "boutique-type" companies.

Paul Marshall, managing director of Bear, Stearns & Co., Inc. in Atlanta, is on the board of the Technology Association of Georgia and works with venture capitalists and tech companies, including in Sarasota where he has a second home. "The Gulf Coast of Florida is thriving at a bit quicker pace than in Atlanta," he says. "The way I see Sarasota is you have the climate, you have the right-to-work state, you're right by the sea, you have culture, plenty to do.everything a young technologist is really looking for," says Marshall. His advice? Local government should provide free enterprise zones and tax incentives to prop up local entrepreneurs and attract start-ups.

USF is aggressively seeking partnerships with tech companies in Sarasota and Manatee counties, says Dr. Ron Casto, associate vice president for economic development and executive director of the USF research foundation. To Casto our retirees are our biggest asset: "Look at how the workforce has changed; people are retiring earlier here, bringing incredible skills. They're too young to sit around. That's what's driving a lot of what's happing. It's unique to this area."

Randy Berridge, president of the Florida High Tech Corridor Council, which represents a 21-county region in Florida, including Sarasota and Manatee, says we have strong economic development leaders; educational leadership and resources in USF Sarasota-Manatee, Manatee Community College and the Ringling School of Art and Design; and "a quality of life that's second to none anywhere in the world."--Susan Burns

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