Biotech Centers Need Infusion Of State Dollars

Published: December 12 2004


This article appeared in the Tampa Tribune and the Palm Beach Post on Dec. 12.

By: Win Phillips
Win Phillips is a vice president for research at the University of Florida.

Florida has made progress in its bid to become a more prominent player on the biotechnology scene, but California’s passage last month of an initiative to pump $3 billion into embryonic stem cell research has raised the stakes considerably.

Proposition 71′s massive infusion of public dollars will make California — already a pre-eminent technology state — even more attractive to scientists, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists. Other states are not far behind: Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle, for example, just announced plans to invest up to $750 million in biomedical research over the next decade.

To remain competitive, Florida must continue to build on the broad biotechnology initiatives spearheaded by Gov. Jeb Bush. The initiative that has attracted the most attention recently is Scripps Florida, the offshoot of California-based Scripps Research Institute that last year announced plans to move to Palm Beach County.

But a year before Bush and Florida lawmakers wooed Scripps with $310 million, they passed legislation launching a smaller initiative, the Centers of Excellence, that is quietly but effectively building a foundation for the state’s biotechnology economy.

Lawmakers funneled $30 million to three universities for separate research centers, two of which, at the University of Florida and Florida Atlantic University, are devoted exclusively to biomedicine and biotechnology.

UF’s Center of Excellence in Regenerative Health Biotechnology seeks to accelerate the development of medicines and treatments for such intractable conditions as spinal cord injury, a field known as “regenerative” medicine.

FAU’s Center of Excellence in Biomedical and Marine Biotechnology is devoted to wresting new medicines from Florida’s abundant and unique marine resources.

Leveraged with the university’s $10 million and $2 million in federal dollars, UF’s center has already done much of the groundwork to reach the goals described by boosters of the California initiative.

While California’s regenerative medicine institute exists only on paper, bricks and mortar are already in place at UF’s research park near Gainesville. The center’s research and education wing was completed in October and will be fully occupied by February. Construction of its state-of-the-art drug manufacturing plant, meanwhile, will wrap up in about a year.

That plant is key, because it will provide regional companies, universities and research institutes with commercial drug development services currently absent from Florida and the Southeast or available elsewhere at significant cost.

Drug makers can tap the plant’s highly specialized equipment to manufacture compounds in the comparatively large quantities needed for clinical trials. The result will not only plug a crack in the region’s drug development pipeline, it will also create crucial infrastructure supporting both small biomedical spin-offs and larger established companies, contributing to diversified and high-wage job opportunities.

FAU’s center is off to an equally promising start. Scientists there have already conducted a number of laboratory-based research and development studies, as well as several research cruises.

One notable element of Wisconsin Gov. Doyle’s plans is that they include more than $500 million for new facilities and research at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, the state’s pre-eminent research institution. That focus reflects the long track record of university research serving as the lifeblood of American innovation, accounting for 54 percent of the nation’s $51 billion in basic science.

The Internet, magnetic resonance imaging and fiber optics all grew from basic research projects — and created tremendous economic opportunity. Relying on university-developed integrated circuits, for example, the U.S. semiconductor industry alone has created 226,000 jobs and had worldwide sales of $166 billion in 2003. Additionally, basic research at leading U.S. universities has created 4,000 spin-offs employing 1.1 million workers.

Although still a “young” industry born of the recombinant DNA research done at universities in the 1970s, biotechnology is expected to hit $50 billion in revenues by 2006 and continue growing into a dominant industry of the 21st century.

If past is prologue, both UF’s and FAU’s centers will continue the central tradition of university research in the coming biotechnology era. But although Gov. Bush visited the UF campus last January to announce his support for an infusion of $20 million to expand his Centers of Excellence initiative, the program was not funded in the 2004-2005 budget.

As lawmakers contemplate how to continue grow the state’s vital biotechnology industry, they should seriously look at the centers’ short but promising track record.


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