Biotech an emerging industry in Florida, report shows

David Albers/Staff 
 Ethanol is produced from algae and saltwater contained in reactors at Algenol Biofuels on Wednesday, April 18, 2012, in South Fort Myers.

Photo by DAVID ALBERS, Naples Daily News // Buy this photo

David Albers/Staff Ethanol is produced from algae and saltwater contained in reactors at Algenol Biofuels on Wednesday, April 18, 2012, in South Fort Myers.

Algenol Biofuels

Bonita Springs

Renewable resources, industrial

www.algenolbiofuels.com

* * * * *

EnVont

Naples

Nanomaterials

www.envont.com

* * * * *

Enzymedica

Port Charlotte

Therapeutics

www.enzymedica.com

* * * * *

Kirax

Naples

Therapeutics

www.kiraxcorp.com

* * * * *

Meridian Bioenergy

Naples

Renewable resources, environmental

www.meridianbioenergy.com

* * * * *

NeoGenomics Laboratory

Fort Myers

Lab services, diagonostics

www.neogenomics.com

* * * * *

VR Laboratories

Bonita Springs

Lab services, therapeutics, contract manufacturing

www.vr-laboratories.com

Source: Florida BioPulse, University of Florida’s Sid Martin Biotechnology Incubator

— Every employee at Naples-based biotechnology firm Kirax has a color photo of the company's rendering of a future high-rise headquarters taped to their office door.

"My goal is to continue to expand Kirax in Naples," said Edmundo Muniz, president and CEO of Kirax, which develops pharmaceuticals. "You will see a big tall building in Naples with the word 'Kirax' across the top."

Muniz has big plans for his piece of the region's biotech industry, but Southwest Florida has an uphill climb to become known as much for white lab coats as it is for its white sandy beaches.

Of the 219 biotechnology companies based in Florida, seven of them are located in Southwest Florida, according to Florida BioDatabase, which is maintained by the University of Florida Sid Martin Biotechnology Incubator.

That puts the region sixth out of the state's eight regions in terms of numbers of biotech companies, tied with Northeast Florida and behind the Panhandle and Central Florida, according to the database.

Florida experienced a biotech boom from 2006 through 2011, with the number of companies growing by 42 percent compared to just 5 percent nationwide, the university's Florida BioPulse report shows. More than 10 percent of the nation's biotech companies call Florida home.

The report gives much of the credit to then-Gov. Jeb Bush, who pushed a controversial $310 million incentive package through the state Legislature to lure the Scripps Research Institute to Palm Beach County, which threw in another $187 million for the first phase of construction.

The institute, unrelated to Naples Daily News owner E.W. Scripps Co., specializes in biomedical research. It opened in 2009. Scripps "opened up the dam" for biotech in Florida, said Patti Breedlove, associate director of UF's Sid Martin Biotechnology Incubator.

"That was a pivotal moment," she said. "People stopped laughing about the possibilities of biotech in Florida."

Getting Southwest Florida a larger share of the biotechnology pie isn't "on our radar now," said Michael Wynn, co-chairman of The Partnership for Collier's Future Economy, an arm of the Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce.

"Right now we've got to be realistic about what we can accomplish," Wynn said.

The group's focus is on expanding existing businesses and making it easier to do business in Collier County by removing local permitting and other obstacles, Wynn said.

He said he sees a "huge potential" for attracting biotechnology firms when the county is ready to redirect its focus there, citing the region's quality of life and the plethora of CEOs that live here and whose connections with the biotech world could be tapped.

The quality of life in Naples is a big selling point, too, said Kirax CEO Muniz.

Muniz, whose company has about 10 full-time employees and 20 to 25 part-time employees, recruited a new vice president and interviewed her on a sailboat on Naples Bay.

"She put one foot back on the dock and said, 'Where do you want me to sign?'" Muniz said.

Without any major life sciences research hubs in place to turn science into new biotech companies, Southwest Florida is faced with having to lure other companies from other places, Breedlove said.

"It's harder to do than most people imagine," she said.

Southwest Florida has had its share of failed attempts. A bid to coax Maine-based genetic research firm Jackson Lab to Collier County with $260 million in state and local grants became mired in political controversy.

In Lee County, botanical pharmaceutical company VR Laboratories' opening of a new bottling plant — with help from $5 million in Lee County tax money — has been delayed amid a squabble with a contractor. The matter has triggered calls for a review of the county's economic incentive program and an investigation by county attorneys.

State regulators' questions about whether Bonita Springs-based Algenol Biofuels had adequate protections in place to keep algae used to make ethanol from escaping into the environment at its expansion site near Southwest Florida International Airport put the expansion on hold. Plans are back on track.

Muniz, at Kirax, sees another challenge: Better connections between biotech firms and local educators.

"Our education system is not prepared to feed the needs of biotech right now," Muniz said.

In Estero, Florida Gulf Coast University's fledgling biotechnology program has graduated 40 students, and is setting its sights on creating a master's and doctorate degree program, said Takashi Ueda, an associate professor of biology and the biotechnology program leader.

That step is crucial to bringing the amount of biotech research to a critical mass that will spin off marketable products and create more biotechnology firms, he said.

FGCU researchers already are using biotechnology to discover a way to prevent dengue fever and make crops grow better, Ueda said.

A 241-acre research park, dubbed Innovation Hub, is planned to break ground at FGCU in early 2013 with a focus on renewable energy sources, including biotech.

"It's beginning now," Ueda said. "It's a good trend I think."

© 2012 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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