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SENSE/ANTISENSE Florida s Biotech Fling

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If you were trying to transform Palm Beach, Fla., into a biotech hotspot, what might you do? Promise researchers at every company that agrees to relocate free year-long passes to Disney World?

Florida’s Governor Jeb Bush has decided that for Palm Beach to sow the seeds of a biotech community, it will need to establish its own Scripps Research Institute. This past fall, Bush, with the approval of the state’s legislature, okayed the spending of approximately $570 million in state funds to help Scripps establish a satellite arm of its La Jolla, Calif., campus on the outskirts of Palm Beach, a town of mostly retirees and suburbanites an hour north of Miami. The money will go toward building a facility for the 500-odd people Scripps Florida expects to employ within seven years, and — at least initially — paying their salaries.

Sounds like a good deal for Scripps, but you might ask what Florida expects to get in return. According to estimates Bush has extrapolated from San Diego’s biotech growth, Palm Beach should reap the benefits of 500 new biotech companies that Scripps Florida spins out and the 44,000 new jobs that come along with them. Scripps predicts that it will grow to 2,800 employees within 15 years, and has promised to repay up to $155 million of the $570 million it’s receiving in Florida taxpayers’ money.

Critics say, however, that Bush’s claims are highly exaggerated. Bringing Scripps to Palm Beach is a worthwhile endeavor, says Joseph Cortright, an economist with a consulting company in Portland, Ore., but “I’m skeptical of the numbers coming out of Palm Beach,” he adds. In a report he co-authored for the Brookings Institution on the growth of the biotech industry in the US, Cortright found that biotech companies are already highly localized in nine of the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the US, and that it will be next to impossible for other areas to catch up with the likes of San Diego, Boston, and the Bay Area.

“Biotech grows better and faster in the areas where it’s already concentrated,” Cortright says, and to expect Palm Beach to experience a biotech boom akin to San Diego’s is a “pipe dream.”

Palm Beach’s chances of fostering startup biotechs may also be hampered by Scripps’ long-standing relationship with Novartis. In exchange for $20 million in annual funding for its La Jolla campus, Scripps agreed in 1994 to allow Novartis first rights to commercialize 47 percent of the new ideas that Scripps researchers in California develop. Although it’s not clear whether this agreement will also apply to Scripps Florida, the potential for Novartis to commercialize new discoveries would undercut Scripps’ ability to spin out new companies.

Caveats aside, the benefits to Palm Beach of bringing in a research institute of Scripps’ caliber will undoubtedly be tangible. Even if the number of new startups in the area turns out to be small, Scripps Florida will bring skilled and highly paid workers to the local area and attract NIH funding on the order of millions of dollars every year. The institute will most likely enhance the prestige of the local Florida Atlantic University, and area schools could benefit from the active involvement of researchers. In fact, Scripps Florida has agreed to give qualified Florida graduate students access to its laboratories, and create a research program for middle- and high-school students and teachers.

Doug Darr, chief scientific officer of the Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse, compares the founding of Scripps Florida to establishing the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina in the early 1970s. NIEHS has never spun out a company, he says, but it employs 1,000 people and receives $50 million to $100 million in research funding every year. Darr says Palm Beach should at the very least expect the benefits of Scripps to be on par with NIEHS. “Even if nothing else happens, Florida will recoup its investment,” Darr says. “But will it be the next biotech hotspot? I doubt it.”

 

John S. MacNeil, a senior editor at Genome Technology, can be reached at [email protected] web.com. His Sense/ Antisense column, which covers government research policy and regulatory issues, appears bi-monthly.

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