MANATEE -- Florida's three major universities are combining to be more of an innovative powerhouse than either the distinguished Research Triangle in North Carolina or the Texas university system.
University of South Florida, University of Florida and University of Central Florida collectively were granted more patents -- 239 -- than the 130 by the Triangle (Duke University, North Carolina State University and University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill) and 226 granted to the entire University of Texas system, Rice University and Texas A&M University. The numbers and ranking were compiled by the National Academy of Inventors and Intellectual Property Owners Association.
"It really shows that focus that USF has put behind innovation and being a culture of innovation," said Wendy Plant, program manager of USF Connect, which commercializes the college's developed patents. "Everybody in the country talks about the Research Triangle, and I don't think Florida gets the attention it deserves for all the great things that are
coming out of here."
Each of the three Florida schools ranked in the top 40 universities worldwide for patents granted in 2013, with USF leading the charge at 12. UF ranked 14th, while UCF ranked 38th. USF's ranking is an improvement above its 15th ranking last year.
"The universities of the Research Triangle and in Texas have a long-standing tradition of high tech research and innovation, and it is an honor to be included among the ranks of such research institutions," said Randy Berridge, Florida High Tech Corridor Council president.
USF was granted 95 patents last year, and Plant's mission is to find businesses that can commercialize the patents to put the inventions into use.
"You've got to put some resources behind it to get it out into the hands that need it," Plant said.
The patents include ones for a device that can hear and monitor heart beats during surgery, a generator that turns sewage into clean water and fertilizer, and a diagnostic device tracking ovarian cancer, which won a prestigious Cade Museum Prize. The Gainesville museum is named after Dr. James Robert Cade, the inventor of Gatorade.
Those three honored Florida universities make up what's called the Florida High Tech Corridor Council, which is an economic development initiative of the three schools to grow the high tech industry in the Sunshine State. The success of that effort is starting to be felt in Bradenton and Sarasota.
Bradenton resident Michael Van Butsel is the business chairman of the BioFlorida Sarasota-Bradenton chapter providing advocacy for the local bio-tech industry. The group wrapped up its third meeting last week and has seen more than 60 attendees at its gatherings, representing the growing bio-tech industry here.
"A lot of them are in the life science gamut," said Van Butsel, project executive at DPR Construction in Tampa. "There are also medical device companies. Then there is what I call the info tech."
But it may have been a business that didn't come to the Sarasota area -- Jackson Labs -- that helped spur a boom in the industry, he said.
"That was kind of, to me, a real moment of discovery that Sarasota is wide open for business," he said.
The Bar Harbor, Maine, company that makes genetics-based medicine for heart disease and other ailments wanted to expand in 2011 to Sarasota County with a 120,000-square-foot warehouse, but called off its search here after the state couldn't help finance $100 million in start-up funding.
"They were serious about coming here in Tampa Bay. The mere fact that someone with that reputation would consider coming to the area would" validate the area, he said.
Van Butsel is also seeing a larger number of retired pharmaceutical executives make the Bradenton-Sarasota region home. In April, a GlaxoSmithKline executive from the Research Triangle purchased a Lakewood Ranch home.
"People who are looking to innovate and expand want to be with other pioneers and mavericks, and that is already happening," he said.
Sara Hand and Stan Schultes of Spark Growth are in the midst of creating the Bradenton Innovation Center at 912 Seventh Ave. E. as a business incubator to encourage business start-ups and offer training.
Hand and Schultes will give an update on the Bradenton Innovation Center to the Kiwanis Club on July 8 at the Bradenton Kiwanis Hall to provide a "state of the union" update for the incubator and tech community.
They say the recognition these colleges are getting is worthwhile, and the region has to work together to help connect people to build both momentum and business.
"Our critical mass of universities and colleges, intellectual capital and training going on here is mind-boggling," Hand said. "Our challenge is to keep that brain power here. Same with financial resources. The perception is that Florida is about tourism and construction, and we know that's not what it's all about."
Mote Marine Laboratory spearheads marine science research, IMG Academy fosters sports performance research, Roskamp Institute works on neurodegenerative disorders.
Then you have the education sector in the area where each has its own niche. Ringling College of Art and Design is known for digital art, USF Sarasota-Manatee has hospitality going for it, State College of Florida has a biolab and entrepreneurship program, New College of Florida has computational science, plus Eckerd College right across Tampa Bay has leadership programs.
"We've got some resources here that may not be obvious to the casual observer," Schultes said. "Not only do we live in paradise, but we have some of the best resources for education and technology."
The Florida tech industry has a little bit of Rodney Dangerfield syndrome -- not getting any respect -- but it's not for a lack of trying. Publicity and name recognition do wonders for finding new donors.
"It's like 'Horton Hears a Who,'" Hand said. "We are here, we are here."
Some of the donors and money here that could be invested are instead lured to places like MIT in New England, she said.
"Having these sorts of statistics is helping. In order to commercialize these types of technologies, especially these cancer drugs, it takes a lot of money to go through the research process," Plant said.
Schultes added that start-ups in Florida are often funded outside of the state.
"We want the money people brought here invested here, instead of investing it back where they came from," Schultes said.
Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.