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Enterprise Florida’s Sena Black on Building ‘Critical Mass’ for State’s Biotech Clusters

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Florida’s emerging life sciences cluster has gained momentum, and headlines, over the past two months since Germany’s Max Planck Society and California entrepreneur-philanthropist Alfred Mann announced plans to build new facilities in the state’s southern section, while the Burnham Institute for Medical Research broke ground Oct. 3 on an $80 million, 175,000-square-foot facility within the Orlando, Fla., master-planned community of Lake Nona [BioRegion News, Oct. 8].
 
Less visible, but arguably no less important, has been a year-long public-private study that has resulted in a report detailing how Florida should grow its life sciences sector over the next few years. “Florida Life Sciences Road Map” — prepared by the Milken Institute for three Florida economic development groups — offered a sunny forecast for the Sunshine State’s biopharma industry, concluding it has a foundation of activity in place for a cluster that can grow into one of the largest in the US, and beyond.
 
“The industry’s value-added sectors can propel the state into the role of a formidable industry player, able to compete in national and global markets,” the report predicted.
 
The two newest life science projects are pursuing the same approvals and economic incentives enjoyed by Burnham and other earlier arrivals, like the Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Research and Scripps Florida. Max Planck is in talks with officials from Palm Beach County and the public-private economic development agency Enterprise Florida on government subsidies; the research institute is seeking a combined $194 million. And Mann is under contract to buy 22 acres within the Tradition, Fla., planned community from its developer, Core Communities; Mann would build a biomedical campus within a section of Tradition that allows for R&D uses, dubbed the Florida Center for Innovation.
 
According to the Road Map study, Florida’s ability to draw more institutes and life sciences businesses benefits from the parade of research institutes, the state’s web of colleges and universities, and a medical device sector that’s the second-biggest in the nation behind California. The state must overcome several weaknesses, however, including a healthcare sector that generates lower-wage jobs than other states, and a skimpy pipeline compared to other states in commercializing technologies developed by universities and research centers.
 
Sena Black, senior vice president of marketing and strategic intelligence for Enterprise Florida, discussed the Road Map report and the future of Florida’s emerging life sciences cluster with BioRegion News recently.
 
Where do the Max Planck and Mann Biomedical projects, and more broadly their home communities of Palm Beach and Port St. Lucie, respectively, fit into Florida’s overall biotech picture?
 
Overall, and from a Florida state perspective, the critical mass is statewide. In almost all regions of the state, we’re really accelerating in our life sciences base. What you’re getting is a lot of critical mass. The whole process to a certain extent started with Scripps in the South Florida area and has expanded beyond that.
 
The Port St. Lucie and Palm Beach areas and the rest of the southeast are extremely important [because] there are a lot of asset bases in that region. Besides these major research institutes, we have our universities that have centers of excellence. In that part of the world, [Florida Atlantic University] has its center of excellence in marine medicines from the sea. You have the University of Miami; you’ve got the hospitals; you’ve got the research parks and the labs besides FAU. Really what you have in that region, which is sometimes forgotten, is you’ve got a lot of the universities that are really part of that knowledge-innovation infrastructure. The partnerships they foster among scientists, their networks, and networks of incubators, are a very important part. You’ve also got the South Florida Enterprise, which helps with commercialization.
 
Looking at other parts of the state, you have Burnham in central Florida, on the west coast and Tampa area, you have Oscor [which plans to create 55 jobs by adding 20,000 square feet to its 40,000-square-foot Palm Harbor facility] and you have M2Gen, which really is doing some leading things as well. You have the University of Florida up in Gainesville, and they’ve got the Sid Martin Biotechnology Incubator up there with a lot of companies. That’s really the lay of the land, which consists of the research institutes, the university centers, as well as kind of support infrastructure in wet labs and incubators.
 
Are the institutes taking advantage, then, of existing critical mass in the life sciences sector, or are they creating it?
 
I would say both. [The institutes] would not walk into a situation if there was nothing there. There’s already a base and activity level that you can link to. They are not creating it from scratch. However they are certainly enhancing that base. And that base, and what they add to the equation, is that they bring in the whole area of nationally recognized institutes and they help diversify the fields of study. Yes there is a base, but the existing base would not be as strong without the institutes. It is a synergistic relationship between all of these new institutes and the base. I think sometimes, the work that is done in Florida’s universities may not be as nationally recognized as perhaps we would like. But there’s a lot already going on in a number of those [universities] in the life sciences.
 
One key recommendation in the Road Map study was for Florida to broaden its base of life sciences activities, both noncommercial and especially commercial. Why did the study recommend building up biotech and pharmaceutical activity in the southeastern part of the state and Tampa, and more medical device activity further north in the state?
 
What the study looked at is, ‘What are the strengths that can be used as building blocks?’ And clearly in the South Florida area, because of Scripps really being a catalyst out there, people began to think of [the region] as biopharma. But there really is a lot of medical device activity in the broader Miami area, and there’s a lot of synergy there. If you look at central Florida, you’re going to have Burnham. You’re going to have a new medical school at the University of Central Florida. But you also have other kinds of clusters. The Tampa Bay area is very strong in medical devices. It probably has the heaviest concentration of medical devices in all of Florida. And Florida, I think, [is] second in the nation in terms of FDA-approved medical device companies. Then we have medical devices in the north panhandle area, but you also have a tremendous amount of biopharma, biotech up in the Gainesville area.
 
You have a strong spread of the clusters all throughout Florida. Having said that, let me make two comments. What we see in Florida is a great deal of innovation happening at the convergence of technologies. Medical devices and biotech companies, pharma and bio, pharma and medical device, healthcare — the hospitals are becoming very important, particularly as it relates to clinical trials and the whole burgeoning field of personalized medicine. All of those linkages are going to be an important part of the equation as we see it. Biometrics is another example, so is bioinformatics.
 
There are going to be clusters that will be built. And in South Florida, the cluster will probably be — maybe the focus right now, which is biosciences. In the Tampa Bay area, the focus is maybe stronger in the medical device area right now, but also growing toward the biosciences. And so I think what the report really indicated is that there is a potential of building clusters in critical geographic regions of the state. It wasn’t just in one area of the state that you could really build a viable life sciences cluster. They all might have a slightly different orientation. What’s important in the Milken report was that they said that some of the areas had very specific life sciences strengths, and it made a lot of sense to leverage what was there, and to kind of grow that and to also leverage it with what might otherwise be considered as [separate] industries.
 
For all of these technologies, the report pointed out, the state and employers will need to recruit and train skilled workers. What training initiatives are being carried out?
 
The report really highlighted the importance of looking at research and, if you want to build depth within the clusters, you really need to have good workforce training programs — say, lab technicians — you need to have a seamless integration of the workforce into life sciences companies and institutions. And in that area, I think much has already been done. The state of Florida, through its workforce system, has a program called Banner centers. These centers are really customized to specific industries. The life sciences industry is a very important part of that. One Banner center is specifically for the biotechnology cluster — it’s run by a consortium of universities and community colleges. It is also got private-sector industry in the mix. The curriculum has a great deal of private-sector focus. [For] that particular biotechnology Banner Center, the lead institution is the University of Florida, but it has a number of other institutions as part of the whole mix as well. It also has a number of companies.
 
How does this differ from the Centers of Excellence program?
 
The Centers of Excellence are university-based centers for research and development. They’re not necessarily workforce-training, curriculum-development programs. They’re really university-based research and development centers. The centers of excellence are part of a statewide, competitive program where the state really tries to help accelerate Florida’s strengths in our universities for R&D. There was one round a few years ago, and two of those [centers] were life sciences — one center at Florida Atlantic University focuses on marine biotechnology, the medicines from the sea. There was another one at the University of Florida at Gainesville that was regenerative health. Subsequent to that, in a second round, there have been more life science centers of excellence, and there’s a third round that will take place this coming year.
 
Another recommendation of the Road Map study was enhancing early-stage funding and VC support. I know Crossbow Ventures moved into Florida in the past year and a half. Have other VC firms done likewise?
 
Our whole venture capital community really has grown. Our base is not as strong as California or Massachusetts but we have seen remarkable growth in that area in the number of venture capital companies. Florida is sort of the new frontier, the new land of opportunity, particularly with a lot of what is happening with spin-off companies. So it’s now a new opportunity area. It’s going to be even more so with the Florida Opportunity Fund, created by the $35 million Florida Capital Formation Act. [The new fund] will accelerate that process for early-stage financing even more. And in addition to that, another piece of that equation is a commercialization institute that will really help do better matchmaking, if you will, for VCs and technologies.