The 280 high-paying jobs a New York biotech firm promised as it announced Thursday it is relocating to St. Petersburg is the exact kind of job growth Florida needs. But the full lesson of wooing IRX Therapeutics Inc. — which is developing a new drug for mouth and throat cancers — is that this success is possible because of investments Florida taxpayers have been making for decades in higher education. It is a reminder that our state's future is limited only by our ambition and willingness to financially commit to it.
Just 11 years ago, Tampa Bay lost IRX, a homegrown company founded by Dr. John Hadden, then director of the Division of Immunopharmacology at the University of South Florida College of Medicine. Hadden and his son, John Hadden II, felt the talent pool was not deep enough to support the level of research they needed to develop a company that has since drawn $90 million in private investment.
A dozen years later, the younger Hadden, now the company's president and CEO, says Tampa Bay's talent has dramatically improved. USF's programs in regulatory science, product manufacturing and other specialities have matured, he says, and he points to the state's successes in courting research institutes like Scripps, Max Planck and Torrey Pines to create a nascent biotech industry.
It's also worth noting that USF's ongoing relationship with IRX — the university has a royalty interest in the company due to the senior Hadden's former employment — helped initiate this deal. When IRX suddenly found itself facing eviction from its research facilities in New York City in June due to a landlord change, USF assistant vice president of research Valerie Landrio McDevitt suggested Florida make a pitch.
Her boss, former St. Petersburg mayor and now USF vice president Rick Baker, picked up the phone and helped assemble a package. In just four short months, economic development officials from the state, Pinellas County, St. Petersburg and USF built a $1.2 million incentive package. Of that, $925,000 is cash that the company will repay if successful in gaining federal approval and eventually selling its drug. The project is entering a final, accelerated Phase 3 of testing, when 500 patients will receive the injection that is designed to prevent or delay reoccurrence of cancer.
The remaining $275,000 is credit toward land owned by the city of St. Petersburg in the Dome Industrial Park where the company is expected to build a manufacturing facility. The company will initially employ 40 people in St. Petersburg earning an average of $120,000 annually and within five years employ 280 people earning an average of $98,000. It should be held accountable to those promises.
A scientific community capable of supporting biotech research isn't grown in a year or two or even a decade. This deal Thursday can trace its success to 1982, when USF first recruited Dr. Hadden to work here. That is the kind of investment Florida needs to keep making, even in these tough economic times.