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Biotech leaders look (way) ahead to bump tourism from Florida spotlight

Bristol-Myers Squibb won't open its Tampa operation until January, but you wouldn't know it by the major drugmaker's presence at Monday's BioFlorida conference.

The New Jersey firm manned an exhibitor booth at the Tampa Waterside Marriott touting plans to start hiring next month for 50 different kinds of workers at what will ultimately be a 579-employee North American "capability center" near Tampa International Airport. Job details can be found at bms.com/careers for what will be hundreds of hires averaging $65,000.

Roaming the BioFlorida conference was Lee Evans, yet to be officially announced as general manager of the capability center. Evans served most recently as Bristol-Myers Squibb's head of research and development information and analytics sciences. At the top of his agenda is a construction overhaul of several interior floors leased at 5104 S Eisenhower Blvd.

Evans says he's drinking in new information for the Tampa expansion like "water from a fire hose."

Bullish life science industry leaders anticipate Florida and Tampa Bay will see more recruitments like powerhouse Bristol-Myers Squibb.

Nancy Bryan, chief executive officer of BioFlorida — the state's biotech and life science trade association — even conjured a future headline from the podium aimed at transforming Florida's old-school image:

"Life science takes over tourism in jobs and revenues in state."

Skeptics may roll their eyes at such ambition given Gov. Rick Scott's tourism obsession. But there was clearly a sense in Monday's room full of Ph.D. scientists and medical doctors that Florida is on track — though perhaps a long one — to become a player worthy of notice in the competitive life sciences.

According to Bryan, the state's biotech sector grew 60 percent in the past five years while the number of biotech companies has increased 13.5 percent since early 2012.

Ever-present economic cheerleader and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn urged attendees to create quality jobs and prove wrong those intent on "dumbing down their state."

The annual conference touched on a broad array of life science challenges.

Keynote speaker Randal J. Kirk — who in 2011 earned the Forbes headline Is Randal J. Kirk biotech's best investor? — warned that food prices could double in a decade. Genetic modification of food, like salmon, to grow bigger and faster is a necessity, he said.

That theme was reinforced by speakers on aquaculture.

"Fish is a critical protein resource for global consumption," said Kevan Main, director of Mote Marine Laboratory's aquaculture research park in Sarasota.

While Asia dominates aquaculture, she said, it could grow rapidly in Florida.

Kirk, worth $3.4 billion and No. 143 on the Forbes 400 list of top U.S. billionaires, pooh-poohed consumer fears over modifying genes. Scientists now are smarter and exercise greater caution, he argued. Kirk pointed to Louis Pasteur, the 19th century scientist who discovered the principles of vaccinations and pasteurization, tested his treatments on animals, and even considered testing a rabies vaccine on himself.

"Pasteur would never be allowed to do what he did in your labs," Kirk said.

Veteran biotech patent attorney Chris Paradies said that in order to grow, the Tampa Bay region's industry must reach a tipping point.

"The key is to have companies that buy others, rather than get bought themselves."

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@tampabay.com.

Biotech leaders look (way) ahead to bump tourism from Florida spotlight 09/16/13 [Last modified: Monday, September 16, 2013 9:12pm]
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