ST. PETERSBURG — IRX Therapeutics, a New York cancer research firm that had its genesis at the University of South Florida a dozen years ago, is coming home.
In a significant boost to the Tampa Bay area's biotech push, IRX on Thursday announced it will relocate its headquarters from the New York City area to St. Petersburg by the end of the year.
The company, lured in part by $1.2 million in government incentives, will initially employ 40 people. Within five years, it intends to increase its workforce to more than 280 with an average salary of $97,000.
IRX's growth hinges on successful drug trials for its lead product IRX-2, an immunotherapy designed to treat cancer, specific to the mouth and neck area, by restoring a patient's immune system to enable it to attack a tumor. Backed by $90 million in capital, IRX-2 has completed the first two phases of clinical research and is entering the final phase before development, pending regulatory approval.
Gov. Rick Scott, University of South Florida representatives and city and state officials unveiled the deal at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg campus Thursday afternoon.
Scott, who stopped by before leaving on a trade mission to Brazil, promised that the IRX announcement wouldn't be the last of its kind. Noting that Florida already has 850 biotech companies, he called the industry crucial.
"It's going to be a big economic driver for Florida," he said.
For years, USF and Tampa Bay have been trying to recruit top-tier biotech and engineering firms. Two of the bigger firms lured to the area are SRI International, which is involved in marine research, and Draper Lab, which has a manufacturing facility in St. Petersburg and a bioresearch facility at USF Tampa.
St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster pointed out the burgeoning biotech and research opportunities surrounding him as he stood on the USF campus: medical research development to his right; marine sciences to his left; not to mention companies like SRI and Draper.
"It's all this collaboration that's going to spin off and multiply," he said.
IRX's ties to USF run deep. The company developed its early cancer immunotherapy technology at USF Tampa and licensed a broad patent portfolio from the university. Strengthening that relationship, IRX and the Florida High Tech Corridor Council signed a letter of intent to jointly fund $2.5 million in research to be performed at USF in the areas of therapeutic vaccine optimization and proof-of concept clinical trials.
"We're so glad you're back with us," USF president Judy Genshaft said to John W. Hadden II, IRX's president and CEO.
Hadden singled out USF director of patents Valerie McDevitt as key to pulling off the deal. McDevitt contacted Hadden in June to pitch a relocation when she became aware IRX's lease in New York was about to run out, and helped push the project forward.
Thanks to licensing agreements with IRX, USF can financially profit from the drug company's success.
In recent months, the decision boiled down to Tampa Bay and another location just outside New York City, Hadden said. Asked if there was any single element that made his board choose Tampa Bay, he cited up-front incentives that will help fund the relocation of about 25 IRX employees. Another 15 will be hired locally.
Hadden also credited the region's growing talent base of available employees to tap for lab research, clinical trials and manufacturing.
"In 2000 (when IRX moved to New York), the pool here wasn't too deep."
The relocation package includes: $600,000 from the state of Florida innovation fund; $275,000 from Pinellas County Economic Development; $50,000 from the University of South Florida Research Foundation; and a $275,000 credit toward land owned by the city of St. Petersburg in the Dome Industrial Park. The industrial park site, which has long been set aside for future expansion opportunities, will become a drug manufacturing facility run by IRX.
Scott said his office became involved in August, and he went to IRX's New York offices to make a personal pitch.
"If you can send a governor to help bring a company back, that helps an awful lot," said former St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker who, in his current job as vice president of public policy and innovation partnerships at USF, led the local efforts.
As part of his jobs initiative, Scott has been actively urging universities to prioritize degrees in science, technology, engineering and math, known as STEM fields.
Earlier this month, Scott created a rift when he backed off his campaign pledge to create 700,000 jobs within seven years, saying he would technically not have to create any jobs to stop unemployment from rising.
"I just have to make sure we don't lose jobs," he said.
On Thursday, however, the governor was back on point.
"My job is to create jobs," he said, saying the state has added jobs every month except one since he took over in January. "My job is to get the state back to work. … This state is clearly on the map. We have job growth all over the state."
A half-dozen protesters on USF's campus protested Scott's appearance at the event, saying he was erroneously trying to take credit for bringing IRX here. The group, waving "Pink Slip Rick" signs, noted that IRX is locating in an industrial area that was created through a Housing and Urban Development grant in 1999.
Amy Ritter, a group organizer, said Scott's aversion to taking federal funds would have killed the HUD program a decade ago. "If he was governor in 1999, these jobs wouldn't even be coming here," she said.
Jeff Harrington can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8242.