State funds key for future of biotech here, university officials say
By Tom Harlan
The Florida Research Consortium's efforts to get $50 million in state funds for university biotech programs are key to the industry's future, officials at local universities say.
Officials from Florida International University and the University of Miami said the state's industry has advanced since the Legislature passed the Technology Development Act in 2002 but a greater investment must be made if the state is to become a biotech hotbed.
Universities would compete for the $50 million, said consortium CEO Jack Sullivan, and use it to purchase equipment and recruit faculty to attract private and federal funds to make scientific discoveries.
Universities do not receive enough funds from research contracts to expand their programs, said FIU vice president for research George Dambach, so programs can only grow through increased student enrollment.
The state has decided to invest in biotech and other tech fields, he said, and will reap economic multipliers from additional dollars spent.
The consortium worked with state officials in 2002 and selected centers of excellence at University of Florida, University of Central Florida and Florida Atlantic University to receive $10 million each to start biotech and other science programs.
In 18 months, the three centers leveraged the $30 million in state funding with more than $43 million from federal and private funds.
The $50 million in funding would give centers of excellence seed funding to form collaborative relationships with other local universities and attract private and federal funding, said UM assistant provost for technology transfer Gary Margules.
"It's very crucial because we have momentum," he said. "We have really advanced."
Florida lags the country's other larger states, Mr. Margules said, in investing in state universities to conduct research to attract venture capital.
About 20 states have invested millions in biotech, he said, using tobacco settlement money.
"This is an extraordinary opportunity," he said. "It's a methodology that has proven successful in many states throughout the country."
Florida captures less than half the national average of research funding as a percentage of gross state product, Mr. Sullivan said.
"We are fourth in population, but we are 11th in terms of federal research funds we capture," he said.
Universities would compete for the funding based on merit, Mr. Dambach said, so the strongest programs will receive the funding, and bring resources to their communities.
The funding has passed out of committees, and is pending house, senate and governor approval.
If approved, the money would lead to the startup of 16-32 tech companies over the next 10 years, Mr. Sullivan said, that would produce between 150 and 300 new technologies.
Five businesses have spun out of the centers of excellence, including Tequesta Marine Biosciences, the first startup resulting from a partnership between Florida Atlantic University and the Scripps Florida Initiative.
The average salary of jobs created by these spinoffs has exceeded $62,000, he said.
"These kinds of companies are helping us grow the economy in Miami and throughout the state," he said. "We want this. It's what Florida's infrastructure is capable of supporting."