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The biotech question

Can the Tampa Bay area engineer a new identity as a center for drug, genetic and medical device research? Or is the biotech boom just the latest bubble?

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By ROBERT TRIGAUX, Times Business Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published October 6, 2002


Last fall, Tampa Bay area economic development, business and education leaders joined a technology pilgrimage to Austin, Texas. Their goal: to learn the secrets of how a metropolitan area successfully nurtured its high-tech sector into a powerhouse.

But one year later, our regional economic gears are shifting from stalled tech to a more alluring industry: biotech.

Is biotech -- loosely defined as genetic engineering, drug research and discovery, and medical device design and manufacturing -- really an economic comer for the Tampa Bay area? Or are we just caught up in the nationwide siren's song of the next new thing?

Biotech central we are not. But Tampa Bay has a few promising beacons. Tampa's H. Lee Moffitt Cancer & Research Center boasts a rising national reputation, and it runs 50 labs that need biotech startups to convert anticancer research into viable drugs.

The University of South Florida's Center for Ocean Technology in St. Petersburg is about to open a commercial "clean room" facility at Largo's STAR Center to help commercialize miniaturized electronic devices. And a cluster of more than 100 medical device manufacturing companies based in Pinellas County, most of them small, have created a consortium to raise their profile and influence.

Come Wednesday, 38 Tampa Bay area leaders, ranging from University of South Florida president Judy Genshaft and the chiefs of area chambers of commerce to prominent business executives, will arrive in Baltimore to see how another metro area managed to develop a strong biotech sector.

The Tampa Bay area, it seems, senses what many mid-size metro areas are just starting to realize. While traditional technology may still be recovering from its days of excess, a younger, bullish biotech industry shows signs of awakening.

"Things are starting to come together," says Mike Poland, a partner with Ernst & Young's health science practice in Tampa and the head of a rising area biotech coalition called the Gulf Coast Life Sciences Initiative.

"We're approaching critical mass," says Carol Steele, business development manager for USF's Center for Ocean Technology. "I feel like our area is on the cusp. But what is the catalyst that will make it go?"

That is the $64,000 question. In the young biotech business world, Boston and San Francisco dominate with the largest and most numerous biotech companies, the strongest academic resources devoted to biotech and the richest financing from local venture capitalists who specialize in funding life science-related startups.

Other up-and-comers include metro areas such as Baltimore-Washington, with its proximity to the prominent National Institutes of Health and the federal dollars of the nation's capital, as well as New York, San Diego, Philadelphia, Seattle and Raleigh, N.C., according to a recent Brookings Institution study, "The Growth of Biotechnology Centers in the U.S."

"Biotechnology is at the heart of an important and fast-growing new sector of the U.S. economy," the study says. "As the industry expands, it has become a focal point of many local, regional and state economic development strategies."

Too many strategies, perhaps.

After comparing the pulse of biotech in 51 metro areas, the Brookings study puts the Tampa Bay area market somewhere in the middle of the pack. We're no Chicago, Detroit or Houston, rich as research centers. In the years 1975 to 1999, the Boston area racked up 3,725 biotech-related patents. The Tampa Bay metro area's tally: 126 patents in the same period.

But at least we're not among the 10 metro areas that Brookings says lack any significant biotech research or commercialization. Those 10 tellingly include three Florida markets: Jacksonville, Orlando and West Palm Beach.

Tampa Bay's biotech signals are modest but may be strengthening.

The brightest biotech light comes from Tampa's Moffitt Cancer & Research Center. Dr. Richard Jove, Moffitt's director of molecular oncology research, says the pace of biotech activity is increasing rapidly. Moffitt is eager to form joint ventures and partnerships with both big and startup pharmaceutical businesses.

Lately, the biggest impediment to expansion is finding the venture capital funds to back the high-risk startups that help Moffitt test its prolific anticancer research.

"Right now, the economy has negatively impacted us," Jove says.

Poland, the Ernst & Young partner, is enough of a biotech believer that he started and heads the Gulf Coast Life Sciences Initiative. In addition to promoting biotech in the area, the group looks for untapped investor money to help fund startup companies.

Unlike other technology sectors, biotech often appeals to a basic passion, Poland suggests.

"The health sciences world is not going to go away, and our desire to find cures for diseases is not going to go away," he says. "That will be the resiliency. We have an opportunity to build on what we have in this market."

So far, biotech startups in the area remain few and modest.

USF's Center for Ocean Technology spun off one company about 14 months ago called Intelligent Micro Patterning LLC. Run by Jay Sasserath, the St. Petersburg business licenses technology that helps in the manufacturing of microelectromechanical systems. The goal of MEMS is to create ever smaller and smarter electronic devices that can be used, for example, inside the human body to monitor diseases and treat them.

When USF opens its MEMS facility at the STAR Center this fall, it hopes to draw on the talents of Pinellas County's existing cluster of medical device manufacturers.

Early this year, USF's Center for Entrepreneurship in Tampa opened a business incubator. Among the first university-related businesses to use the incubator is Medegy, which analyzes data to assess the health status of certain populations. Another startup, chaired by Dr. Paul Sanberg, is Saneron CCEL Therapeutics Inc., which is testing ways to treat stroke and Parkinson's disease using umbilical cord stem cells.

So where do we stand? There's plenty of biotech activity percolating in the region. But if you think it seems to lack the "big mo" for the Tampa Bay area economy so far, you're right.

Poland, who watches this area's biotech scene as closely as anyone, has some advice: Be patient. Biotech is complex stuff. It requires plenty of highly educated scientists and doctors for research. It needs a supportive entrepreneurial climate. And it most certainly demands funding from venture capitalists familiar with longer-term payouts and the quirks of biotech.

No other part of Florida is doing much in biotech. And other than Raleigh's Research Triangle in North Carolina, no other metro area in the Southeast has much, if any, lead in the biotech race.

"We have the opportunity to become the second biggest biotech market in the Southeast," Poland says.

Maybe. Let's see what those 38 area leaders think later this week when they return from their tour of Baltimore's biotech market.

Can the Tampa Bay area become a regional biotech player? It was only last week that Tampa's TechVillage, an incubator created to help traditional tech startups, decided to shut its doors. True, it opened late in the national cycle of incubators. But it never got the community business support it needed. Let's hope that was a fluke and not a trend.

-- Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8405.

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