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Microscopy Core, New Directors, Commercialization among Priorities for Max Planck Florida

By Alex Philippidis

NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) — Max Planck Florida Institute will spend the next several months growing its core of microscopy equipment, hiring three scientific directors — one of which will double as CEO — and building relations with neighboring research and academic institutions along with the permanent facility it has begun constructing in Jupiter, Fla., the institute's new chief scientific facilities officer told GenomeWeb Daily News.

Ivan Baines also said Max Planck Florida will seek to promote commercialization of technologies annually, including through startups, building on the region's budding cluster of academic and research institutions, as well as life sciences companies.

In his new position, Baines will establish and manage the laboratories and scientific services of the institute, which will focus on neurosciences and integrative biology. He will also serve on the executive board of directors that is overseeing Max Planck Florida's development of a 100,000-square-foot building set to rise on the MacArthur Campus of Florida Atlantic University.

A groundbreaking ceremony took place last month, with the institute set to move in by May 2012 at earliest. When that happens, Max Planck Florida will move out of its current home, a 40,000-square-foot temporary space on the FAU campus.

"We are investing in bringing those facilities up to speed, but trying to do it in such a way that we can take most of what we invest with us" when Max Planck Florida moves into the permanent facility, Baines said in a wide-ranging interview earlier this week. "There is a strong imaging core already in place, and that's going to be something that we're going to continue to build on in the future."

That imaging core, he said, already consists of:

• Three live-cell fluorescence microscopes for the calcium imaging carried out by the molecular neurobiology group led by Samuel Young Jr.

• Two Two-photon microscopes that will be set up "in the next month or so," Baines said, for use by the institute's synapse physiology research group led by Jason Christie; and the astrocyte research group to be led by James Schummers, who will arrive on campus in September. Schummers was previously a postdoc at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT.

• Two high-speed confocal microscopes being operated almost around the clock by the institute's digital neuroanatomy group led by Bert Sakmann, the 1991 Nobel Laureate in Medicine and the institute's inaugural scientific director.

"We'll have really a fairly sophisticated core of microscopy. We want to add to that. We want electron microscopy, and new varieties on electron microscopy," such as the 3D view or what's called serial block-face scanning electron microscopy, Baines said.

He added that the institute will have to wait for its move into the permanent facility before the full spectrum of electron microscopy can be built — including medium voltage (300 kv) electron tomography. "We want to have the transmission electron microscopy techniques for 3D reconstruction," he said.

By expanding its microscopy core, Baines said, Max Planck Florida hopes to better carry out one key objective — improving how it observes large structures at high resolution. Sakmann is expected to publish results soon from one of the highest resolution 3D reconstructions ever undertaken on the human brain, with a capacity to zoom in on individual neurons and zoom out.

"Normally you're looking at small structures at high resolution. But if you want to image the brain, even if you're looking at an embryonic brain or a rodent brain, it's still a relatively large structure," Baines said. "You're going to have to find ways of combining technologies to reconstruct a 3-dimensional, high-resolution vision of the brain, and then move on to start looking at it, comparing healthy and diseased states, and hoping to get insight into complex disorders like Alzheimer's, where you've got several things happening at once."

Max Planck Florida is the first North American institute of the Max Planck Society, a Germany-based nonprofit network of 80 institutes, research units, and smaller working groups. The society has an international staff of about 20,400, including research fellows and visiting scientists, and an annual operating budget of $1.8 billion.

A veteran of the society, Baines previously served as a director of services and facilities and scientific coordinator of the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics in Dresden, Germany.

Before joining Max Planck in 1999, he helped administer the then-$2.8 billion basic and clinical research budget of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, and promote its Small Business Innovation Research program. He also served on NIH's technology evaluation board, helping NHLBI's patent portfolio swing from a loss to a profit in under two years.

Speaking this week with GWDN, Baines said Max Planck Florida will also spend the next few months reviewing candidates for three scientific director positions. Each director will oversee a department that will house a cluster of research specialties — though the first or founding scientific directors will be appointed chief scientific director and function as CEO.

"They will be very much overseeing me, or providing their scientific vision, which I will do my best to populate with activity and action — in other words, translate their scientific vision into an infrastructure that enables the research that they want to perform," Baines said.

During that translation process, he said, directors could either spell out what tools and technologies they want, or lay out a goal that would touch off an evaluation of multiple technologies. Baines said Max Planck would make infrastructure decisions that best balanced scientific excellence with cost-effectiveness.

The institute thought it had a CEO in February, when it announced its intent to appoint as scientific director/CEO Michael Ehlers, who at the time was George Barth Geller professor at Duke University Medical Center's department of neurobiology, and an investigator at Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Ehlers opted against joining Max Planck Florida, and instead accepted a Pfizer appointment as its chief scientific officer for neuroscience research.

Until "at least one or two" of the scientific director positions are filled, Max Planck Florida will hold off on hiring additional research group leaders, Baines said.

The institute envisions 15 permanent research groups operating from the permanent facility on projects for five years, with the option for an extension for two to three years. The groups will be expected to collaborate with peers at other institutions as well as with startups.

"We'll be looking to find companies in early-stage activities that are interested in collaborating or working together. It may be technology partnerships. It could be focused on a particular question or discovery. And then, we'll develop those relationships and hope to make a contribution," Baines said.

Max Planck Florida also hopes to spin out its own companies. Baines expects that activity to follow a pattern he has seen elsewhere: A burst of startups the first two or three years as directors with inventions come on board and start work, then a relatively slower pace over the next period of "about five years" while new discoveries take shape, then another wave of startups, depending on the economy and venture capital market at the time.

"Hopefully, the opportunity will arise to have a number of companies, two or three, in the first period, and then look for more opportunities later. Maybe there will also be opportunities to do a combination with some of the other institutions and scientists that are already here," he said.

That commercialization effort could involve housing startups in a new incubator, though Baines noted that incubators typically take a long time to fill, and Jupiter already has such space.

As consultant to the German state of Saxony's Ministry for Economy and Labor and director of the regional life sciences group BioSaxony, Baines helped establish incubators in the German cities of Dresden and Leipzig that expanded earlier this year after demand from startups caused them to fill up — despite local life-science clusters that were smaller than Florida's is now.

Bio City Leipzig is home to 24 companies and service providers employing nearly 500 employees, while another 24 tenants occupy BioInnovationsZentrumDresden, according to their websites.

"We won't try and force science down a particular commercial path, but what we will do is make sure that the structures are in place, that should something with commercial potential be discovered, we'll be in a position to nurture it and find the right commercialization strategies," Baines said.

In addition to carrying out traditional tech transfer through licensing and collaborations, Max Planck's Florida institute also foresees opening up its equipment to early-stage companies, drawing top scientists to the region, Baines said.

The prospect of new high-wage jobs and new companies through spinouts and company recruitment prompted Florida officials to approve a total of $188 million in state and local incentives for Max Planck Florida. The institute has agreed to create 135 jobs by 2015 in return for the government largesse — part of more than $1 billion showered on a half-dozen research institutes by the state of Florida and numerous local governments.

The institute is expected to generate 1,800 direct and indirect jobs, and more than $2 billion in economic activity, over the next two decades.

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