Florida blows its biotech horn

Working the field's largest convention, the state trumpeted its recent industry catches.

Published May 10, 2007

Freshly armed with heavyweight research names like Scripps, Burnham and the Torrey Pines Institute, a Florida delegation flew to Boston this week to lure companies, and tout the state's success as an emerging biotechnology mecca.

Their slogan: Florida - the innovation hub of the Americas.

It is the most competitive of gatherings. Most states and many countries are fixated on establishing themselves as serious players in biotech, the field most touted as the growth business of the new century.

About 80 of the state's business leaders and government officials attended the Bio International Convention, at 22,366 delegates, the largest industry gathering of its kind. From Sunday through Wednesday, when the show concluded, they pitched the state's business-friendly initiatives, its emerging biotech centers and recent achievements in landing in-state facilities of such industry giants as Scripps Research Institute near Jupiter, as well as the Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Studies (St. Lucie County), and the Burnham Institute for Medical Research (in Orlando).

"We got a terrific reception," said Ed Schons, director of economic development at the University of Central Florida, in a phone interview. "We are beginning to get noticed. ... People are saying, 'My goodness what's happening there?'"

In recent years, Florida accelerated its efforts to create a niche in the biotech world. Under former Gov. Jeb Bush, the state invested heavily in the sector, recruiting major biotechnology research institutes, establishing business incubators and promoting existing companies. Bush had been an aggressive ambassador for the state at previous convention, stressing his commitment to the industry. His successor, Gov. Charlie Crist, has yet to display Bush's level of enthusiasm for the biotech industry and missed this year's convention. He was represented in Boston by his deputy director of tourism, trade and economic development, Keisha Rice.

But the governors of Massachusetts (who unveiled a $1-billion, 10-year plan for funding scientific research intended to cement his state's reputation as a major biotech player), Rhode Island, Missouri, Wisconsin, Indiana, Kentucky and Puerto Rico did attend.

The highlight of the Florida team this year were the testimonials offered by executives from Torrey Pines and Scripps.

"Florida is interested and motivated and they seem to really get it," said Richard Houghten, president and CEO of Torrey Pines. "The message is: Florida is ready to go."

Some hurdles remain. Crist, in office since January, has yet to articulate his vision for biotech. The state's treasury is diminished and is struggling with limited funding for young start-ups, says a 2006 report from the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, The report also cites a lack of information on the overall costs and effectiveness of the biotech initiatives.

In the Tampa Bay area, the University of South Florida, which was represented in Boston this week, has focused for years on building its role as a regional biotech source of research and commercialization. That effort is progressing, though slowly.

Still, the Florida team in Boston was upbeat.

"It's very positive," said John Walsh, vice president of the Pasco Economic Development Council. "We have a great story to tell and create awareness about the opportunities from the Panhandle to the bay area."

Fast Facts:

Tough playground

In Boston, plenty of biotech competition for attention:
- Michael J. Fox, founder of the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research, urged speeding up therapies for patients.
- Queen Noor of Jordan discussed how biotechnology could help address global health and poverty issues.
- Scottish Development International unveiled plans for a 100-acre bioresearch complex near Edinburgh.
- Canada, Australia, Japan, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and other countries threw parties or touted their biotech interests.

Madhusmita Bora can be reached at mbora@sptimes.com or (813) 225-3112.