Moving from an economy that relies heavily on tourism to one that has a large stake in biotech is a big leap. And it calls for a long-term well developed strategy.
That’s what Governor Jeb Bush was after back in 2003. Using federal stimulus funds as bait he attempted to catch a big fish in the biotech sector. It worked and the Scripps Research Institute came to Florida.
His next line was thrown to the state legislature, which bit and in 2006 created an Innovation Investment Fund to attract world-class research and development which in turn would support high-technology innovation clusters.
To find talent for this endeavor, a World Class Scholars Program was formed to attract leading researchers from around the globe to the state. Funds for building facilities to house research came via the State University System Research and Economic Development Investment program. And the Centers of Excellence Program allowed state universities and their research partners to leverage public and private dollars to commercialization emerging technologies.
All of these efforts worked and by 2006 the Innovation Investment Fund had attracted five additional research institutes. Between 2007 and 2014, the state’s biotech sector had grown by more than 92% and garnered more than 4,200 bioscience-related patents. There are currently 6,000 bioscience entities in the state which employ 83,000.
Another fund, the Florida Institute for the Commercialization of Public Research, was formed in 2007. It works with the technology licensing and commercialization offices of Florida's state universities and private research institutions to leverage a $2.5 billion research base and form investable companies that create clean jobs. Sixty-three companies have been funded to date, and the Institute's economic impact through June of 2016 was $630 million, with an annual return on investment of 22 times to the state.
All of this success has translated into financial gains for cities across the state. Gainesville is one city that has seen its biotech economy grow.
“The region’s culture of innovation has been a defining characteristic of the local economy, businesses and overall identity for the past two decades and beyond," explains Susan Davenport, CEO, Gainesville Chamber of Commerce. However, Greater Gainesville’s trail of innovation was first blazed 50 years ago when Gatorade made the commercial leap from the lab of then-University of Florida professor of renal medicine Dr. J. Robert Cade to retail shelves. The entire city is a laboratory of creative ideas and initiatives.”
In 1990, the University of Florida decided to leverage its leadership in research and the commercialization of university research in support of a biotechnology incubator. The result was the opening of the Sid Martin Biotechnology Incubator (SMBI) which was a springboard for Gainesville biotech cluster.
Growth continued in 2010 with the opening of the Innovation Hub. The following year the following year the University of Florida (UF) Office of Technology Licensing (OTL) relocated there, greatly raising the visibility of UF’s commercialization efforts and putting a spotlight on the area’s tech growth. According to Patti Breedlove, the former director of the SMBI, OTL has launched 200 biomedical and technology startups, generating more than $1 billion in private investments.
In 2015 OTL’s efforts resulted in 122 signed licenses and options for technologies from the university, infusing nearly $2.3 billion into Florida’s economy, and the employment of more than 10,600 people.
Biotech Companies Expanding
All of these combined resources form an ecosystem which encourages established biotech companies to continue expansion in the area. One example is Nanotheraputics, an integrated biopharmaceutical company that focuses on development and manufacturing, which recently broke ground on a new $138 million facility.
Nanotherapeutics was Florida born and bred. Their initial technology originated from the University of Florida and the company moved into the SMCI. The company grew by first acquiring small commercial and government contracts and eventually attracted larger contracts.
Though a small company, only 50 in 2012, size didn’t stop them from going after larger contacts. “We formed a consortium of 37 companies in order to bid for a Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority contract,” explained Gary Ascani, vice president, business development for Nanotherapeutics “While we didn’t get that particular contract, it did elevate our company’s capabilities and we eventually won the Department of Defense project.”
The Department of Defense project was the one that resulted in the building of the new plant which opened in December of last year. It was built to produce military stockpiles of vaccines and treatments against bioterrorism weapons and infectious diseases.
“In addition to securing such an important contract the facility will allow the company to continue on its growth trajectory to secure commercial business since the plant has the ability to also produce smaller-scale production which presents a more affordable option for local biotech startup companies,” said Ascani.
Another biotech company that is experiencing strong growth in Gainesville is Exactech. Exactech manufactures innovative orthopedic implants and surgical instruments for hip, knee and shoulder replacement and spine surgery as well as biologic materials and bone cement systems. Over the past three years the company has averaged 18.6% growth. It now employs 700 workers and about 25% of the workforce in Gainesville are UF graduates.
“The area’s workforce talent is especially important to us as we have a goal of manufacturing 80% of our bone and joint products in house,” explained Ryan Loftus, senior manager, at Exactech In. “Currently we are at 60%. To get to our goal we have to invest in space, equipment and people.”
And Loftus is optimistic about finding the talent he needs. “We are able to develop talent from within in Gainesville and our model is hire locally. UF is a central core of this area and is a driving force. Culturally there are motivated, creative people.” Nearly 75,000 college students reside in Gainesville.
To ensure a manufacturing sector that will continue to attract talent, area manufacturers are banding together to help each other solve problems and access resources.
“We are able to rely on each other in order make each business stronger,” says Loftus who is also chairman of the Gainesville Manufacturing Council. “We are focused on best practices and tour each other’s facilities.”
The present biotech ecosystem, which includes AGTC (Applied Genetic Technologies Corp.), Novabone, Axogen, and RTI Surgical have laid the groundwork for future expansion of this sector.
The process that started at the state level years ago has thrived. “Greater Gainesville has evolved into a region fueled by research, business and a smart, young and creative workforce that both thrives on, and is a catalyst for innovation,” says Davenport.