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Apr 15, 2008 (Vol. 28, No. 8)

Creating a Life Science Cluster in Florida

Great Progress Has Been Made in Attracting Research Institutes: Will Companies Follow?

  • For the last several years, Florida has been named by various industry pundits as one of the top biotech regions. The criteria used to determine this ranking are a bit nebulous, but if the ranking has anything to do with money spent luring life science institutions to the state and an unwavering determination to create a healthcare juggernaut, then the laurels are well deserved.

    After 10 years of seeking to become a life science hotspot, things do seem to be finally coming together in Florida. A triumvirate of critical factors have coalesced in the last five years, including cooperation among three southern Florida counties (Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach), significant financial input from state coffers, and an abundance of committed individuals.

    The Florida Innovation Incentive Fund, created in 2006 under former Governor Jeb Bush, was designed to attract biotech companies and research institutions to Florida and create a leading biotechnology center. The results, so far, have been noteworthy.

    Institutions

    In 2003, Scripps was persuaded to establish an east coast branch on the campus of Florida Atlantic University in Jupiter. Incentives from the state topped $310 million, according to Russell Allen, president and CEO of BioFlorida.

    Scripps Florida, which focuses on basic biomedical research and drug discovery, is temporarily located in two buildings with a total of 74,000 square feet of lab space. Construction of a larger complex is ongoing, and occupancy is expected by the first quarter of 2009.

    Although Scripps Florida has been operating for only a short period of time, it has produced some promising early results. As of June 2006, it reportedly received 22 grants totaling over $13 million from the federal government and other sources and created 180 jobs, according to an Office of Program Policy Analysis & Government Accountability report.

    It is expected that Scripps Florida will further contribute to the state’s economic development as biotechnology companies, technology incubators, and venture capital firms cluster around it in the future.

    It was the prospect of cooperating closely with Scripps and more than $94 million of state and county funding that fueled the Max Planck Society’s (www.mpg.de) interest in locating its first U.S. outpost in southern Florida.

    The Max Planck Florida Institute, which is expected to open later this year, will ultimately employ about 150 researchers from all over the world. It will also offer a visiting scientist program and provide lab space for renowned researchers to carry out their work.

    “The Max Planck Florida Institute will give us a foothold in the world’s most important country for science,” emphasizes Max Planck president, Peter Gruss.

    Yet another Florida recruit is the California-based Burnham Institute for Medical Research, which in August 2006 reported plans to open a research facility in Orlando and started building in October 2007. The Institute received $155 million in state incentives.

    Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Studies also broke ground last year for a Florida satellite in Port Lucie. The Institute was attracted by the more than $50 million in local incentives plus a 20-acre donated site with an additional $32 million expected from the state.

    The 100,000 sq. ft. biomedical research center, which is scheduled to open in 2009, will house $9 million in equipment and is expected to employ about 200 people when completed.

    Academic Involvement

    The University of Miami (UM), with Donna Shalala, Ph.D., Secretary of Health and Human Services in the Clinton administration, at its helm is doing its part to advance the life sciences in Florida as well.

    Dr. Shalala arrived in Florida in 2001 and immediately set to work “creating a great university and contributing to the creation of a great city with great jobs.” A self-proclaimed “institution builder, not a caretaker,” she stepped up fundraising at Miami, initiating a campaign in October 2003 that raised $1.4 billion by February 2008.

    Dr. Shalala has also championed the development of Centers of Excellence, among them the University’s new hospital. Late last year, UM completed the purchase of Cedars Medical Center. The 560-bed acute care facility was renamed the University of Miami Hospital.

    “The creation of a university hospital environment enables us to provide the very best academic medical care to the people of south Florida and beyond,” says Pascal J. Goldschmidt, M.D., svp for medical affairs and dean of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

    “With this new flagship hospital, our physicians will forge a new era in University of Miami-delivered care. This academic medical center will become a true medical destination.” Plans are now under way to build and expand Centers of Excellence in specialties ranging from cardiology and urology to orthopedics and internal medicine at the new University of Miami Hospital.

    Miami has also been aggressively courting preeminent scientists like Dr. Goldschmidt, former chairman of Duke’s department of medicine, who came to UM in 2006. These recruits have helped bring additional NIH funding to Miami. In the federal fiscal year 2007, the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine received over $88 million from the NIH, a 22% increase from 2006.

    In February, Florida’s Governor, Charlie Crist, awarded an $80 million grant to the Miami Institute for Human Genomics under the direction of Margaret Pericak-Vance, Ph.D., another recruit from Duke. The Institute, part of Miami’s Miller School of Medicine, seeks to identify genetic variants that underlie common human diseases. Dr. Pericak-Vance’s use of gene mapping has led to the identification of major susceptibility genes for Alzheimer’s and AMD.

    Dr. Shalala describes the funding as “an extraordinary grant from the state that I believe will transform south Florida.” She adds that, with the efforts of the governor and house speaker, “we are well on our way to developing south Florida as a life science cluster with an unsurpassed economic potential.”

    Start-Up Companies

    Camillo Ricordi, M.D., scientific director of the Diabetes Research Institute at the Miller School and distinguished professor of medicine and professor of surgery, biomedical engineering, microbiology, and immunology at the University of Miami, is especially prolific. While Dr. Ricordi is best known as an expert in cell transplantation, he is also an entrepreneur who recently formed three companies: LifeGate, Jotmate, and Converge.

    LifeGate was launched in 2007 and is developing a telehealth and an emergency-alert system that integrates mobile phone processing capabilities, Bluetooth and GPS, and medical-monitoring technologies to facilitate care and intervention during critical health-related events. The firm offers a LifeGate alert device and software system that provides a wireless signal to emergency professionals and personalized contacts during critical episodes. “Time can save lives,” says Dr. Ricordi.

    The Jotmate team, which includes informatics scientist Nicholas Tsinoremass, is working on a smart mobile data book (SMDB). This SMDB system is essentially software that integrates a mobile-computing digital pen and peripheral components to facilitate multi-input data capture and the secure storage of confidential information and IP assets within a robust relational database.

    The third company, Converge, has developed a device that limits cell therapies to certain areas of the body so that antirejection therapies don’t affect the healthy areas.

    Eckhard R. Podack, M.D., Ph.D., chair of the department of immunology and microbiology at the University of Miami, started Pique Therapeutics in 2005. The therapeutic vaccine company has focused on the treatment of cancer. Its lead product, PT 107, is currently in Phase II trials in non-small-cell lung cancer.

    Pique received venture capital funding from Golden Pine Ventures based in Research Triangle Park and is now headquartered there.

    Keeping Firms in State

    Florida would prefer that its home-grown companies stay in Florida, and several steps have been taken to make sure that happens. The University of Miami Miller School of Medicine has set up UM Innovation to help nascent firms by constructing a 7.2-acre life science park with about 1.4 million square feet of lab and office space for UM spinoffs as well as non-UM companies.

    Another major obstacle facing almost all start-up biotechnology companies is obtaining capital to support initial operations. Again, Florida has stepped up and created the Institute for the Commercialization of Public Research and provided $1 million in funding under the auspices of Enterprise Florida, the state’s economic development partnership. The institute will augment the work of tech transfer offices and will help market the research to angel investors and venture capital companies.

    In addition, late last year, the Florida legislature created the Florida Opportunity Fund, to increase the availability of venture capital statewide. The intent of the Fund is to get more venture capitalists to invest in Florida, explains Louis Laubscher, svp and COO of Enterprise Florida, which will provide administrative support to the Opportunity Fund.

    The Fund will increase the availability of seed capital and early-stage venture equity capital in Florida in a unique way. Venture capitalists will be able to request an investment from the Opportunity Fund. However, these firms must agree to match the dollars raised by the Opportunity Fund with private investment dollars as a minimum investment in Florida.

    Any venture capital firm receiving Opportunity Fund dollars must agree to invest that money plus its match into Florida businesses.

    Eligible venture capital firms must be based in Florida, have full-time Florida staffing, and/or demonstrate a history of prior investment into Florida companies.

    This initiative seeks to remedy Florida’s dismal early-funding record. According to a report by PricewaterhouseCoopers, seed and start-up capital investments obtained by Florida companies totaled $6 million in 2005, which represented only 0.7% of the amount invested nationally.

    Only time will tell if Florida’s commitment to the advancement of the life sciences will result in a healthcare destination or if any homegrown biotech companies, spun out of the research institutions or universities, will be the foundation of a true biotech cluster. Right now the momentum is still building, and south Florida is certainly worth watching.



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