Only 1,100 jobs for $1.5 billion? Florida's biotech cluster won't come cheap

If Americans like quick economic results, Floridians want them yesterday.

So it's no surprise that a sophisticated industry Florida wants to call one of its own — biotech — is still in its infancy here despite $1.5 billion-plus in state and local economic incentives thrown at just eight biotech organizations.

How many jobs has $1.5 billion generated so far? About 1,100. That's $1.3 million or so spent per job, so far. Of course, the goal is to attract more biotech firms to create a cluster or concentration of industry activity — with more jobs.

As the huge dollars reflect, Florida is a state obsessed with generating 21st century-style jobs. Florida wants to be able to say we're more than a tourist destination or the capital of real estate sprawl.

My, how serendipity plays a role in Florida's economic directions.

If Jeb Bush had not been our federally befriended governor when brother George W. was the nation's president …

If Jeb had not secretly and on his own pitched Scripps Research in California to open a facility in Florida …

And if Jeb did not have $310 million in funds in 2003 to entice Scripps with …

… then Florida would be back in the dark ages wishing it were a biotech player.

A new state government report called Biotechnology Clusters Developing Slowly examines the role of state incentives and the progress of Florida's heavily subsidized effort to create a concentration of biotech firms here. The report is the work of the Florida Legislature's Office of Program Policy Analysis & Government Accountability.

It concludes the $1.5 billion commitment thus far to this industry "has not yet resulted in the growth of technology clusters in the counties where program grantees have established facilities."

Where's the biotech beef?

Florida possesses everything it needs to kick-start a biotech industry except one ingredient: venture capital, an industry of investors willing to stake young, promising companies in exchange for future returns.

That's long been Florida's Achilles' heel. And that's why the Legislature in 2007 created the Florida Opportunity Fund as a surrogate investor.

But there are problems.

First, the opportunity fund can invest not only in biotech firms but also businesses involved in information technology, homeland security and defense. That dilutes the money that can be focused on building up one cluster.

Second, the Florida Opportunity Fund was handed only $29.5 million. It's a puny sum compared with the $310 million Jeb Bush first waved at Scripps.

To help, Florida's State Board of Administration was authorized to invest up to 1.5 percent of the net assets of the state retirement system trust fund in technology and high-growth investments.

That idea may sound progressive, at least until the pension assets take losses from higher-risk investing. As of November 2009, the board had committed to invest $26.5 million in just three companies.

The report suggests more economic incentives may help push Florida toward a biotech tipping point. If we can find the money. And the nerve.

No doubt we could use the extra bucks. But Florida also needs more patience to let its biotech cluster mature and blossom.

Don't rush this one. Don't neglect it, either.

Contact Robert Trigaux at trigaux@sptimes.com.

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What has $1.5 billion in incentives brought Florida in biotech?

2004: Scripps Florida, Jupiter Disease research, $579 million

2006: Burnham Institute, Orlando Disease research , $310 million

2008: Max Planck Florida, Jupiter Molecular processes, $188 million

2008: Miami Institute for Human Genomics, Miami Gene research, $180 million*

2008: Vaccine & Gene Therapy Institute Florida, Port St. Lucie Vaccines for elderly, $120 million*

2006: Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Studies, Port St. Lucie Disease research, $97 million

2006: SRI International, St. Petersburg Marine science research, $50 million*

1008: Charles Stark Draper Laboratory Inc., Tampa and St. Petersburg Miniature medical/military systems, $30 million

* Includes private funding

Source: Florida Office of Tourism, Trade and Economic Development, January 2010

Only 1,100 jobs for $1.5 billion? Florida's biotech cluster won't come cheap 01/27/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 27, 2010 9:06pm]

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