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Brothers discover Florida as a center for innovation

When Brian Fuller cruised into Florida in his cherry red Chevrolet Volt, he didn't know what to expect.

Since July, he has been driving across the country to take the temperature of U.S. creativity. He set out unsure whether Americans still have what it takes to be innovative.

A week in Florida restored his confidence. In fact, he thinks Florida doesn't get enough credit as a center for innovation.

Fuller, editorial director of UBM Electronics' EE Life, part of a trade publication for electrical engineers, spent the week talking to some of the state's technology companies as part of his yearlong journey to find stories of American ingenuity.

Fuller and his brother, Kirk, the project's videographer, record the stories in a blog and show off the $46,000 electric Volt, itself an example of innovative American thinking.

What he has found in Florida, Fuller said, is a state moving quickly to the "tier one" level in terms of producing new and creative electronics.

Thanks to the large university system, the Space Coast and a heavy emphasis on biomedical research, Florida is a force to be reckoned with in the technology world, though an unrecognized one, he said.

"Florida should have more visibility as a technology hub," Fuller said. "It's not up there with Silicon Valley, but it's up there with the areas around Chicago and up there with parts of New Jersey that are putting out a lot of biomedical research."

According to data from Enterprise Florida, the state ranked 12th in the nation in 2010 for the number of patents issued, and 15th nationwide in the amount of venture capital invested in innovation. The TechAmerica Foundation ranked Florida at No. 5 in 2010 for the number of people employed in the technology industry.

The area from Tampa to Orlando, where Fuller spent the past few days, is particularly advanced, he said. And with all of those Space Coast engineers looking for new things to do thanks to cuts in NASA funding, Fuller expects many more technological creations to come out of Florida in the future.

"They're not just going to sit there and twiddle their thumbs," he said.

As part of his project, Fuller stopped in St. Petersburg last week to talk with Plasma-Therm CEO Abdul Lateef about the company's etching equipment, which is used to make semiconductor chips used in devices such as cellphones.

Lateef said Plasma-Therm is doing its part to promote innovation.

"Plasma-Therm is involved in products that enable other companies to produce technology," he said. "Our product is used in many of the products that impact a normal person."

When Fuller started the project, he was afraid that the American drive to create new technologies in the face of international competition had slowed.

Six months into the trip, after seeing devices such as lights powered by the temperature difference in a bathroom sink's taps and hockey helmets that can measure how hard a player is hit, Fuller has been proven wrong, he said.

"All my predispositions that we've lost our innovative mojo have sort of gone out the window."