Florida has decided to make a Texas-style bet on biotechnology. The strategy: entice world-class centers of biomedical research to establish local campuses. The Scripps Research Institute, where I am an adjunct professor, was the first taker: the La Jolla-based Institute was promised more than $500 million in state and county funds to launch a campus near Palm Beach. After several years of intense public discussion, a site was selected
Especially pleasing to me is the focus on translational research: bringing ideas from the laboratory to human trials. Scripps has installed a cutting-edge robotic facility that will develop new drugs based on genomic discoveries. The center will specialize in illnesses such as Alzheimer's, cancer, and diabetes, as well as infectious diseases such as malaria.
Scripps Florida will soon be joined by a cousin from Germany, a branch of the famed Max Planck Research Institute. The Burnham Institute for Medical Research will open a campus in Orlando, while the Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Studies will construct a facility in Port St. Lucie. In all, the state and counties will spend more than $1 billion to build international leadership in biomedical research. The hope, of course, is that this investment will pay off not only in the form of new high-paying jobs but also in the expansion of the biotechnology industry.
So far, all is on track. There is a palpable sense of excitement and energy. The staffers, for the most part, are young and eager to prove themselves. Based on my conversations with them, it is clear that they have a mission: to create new drugs and vaccines to treat and cure our most difficult diseases. Scripps scientists were recently awarded an $80 million grant for translational research, one of just four of its kind in the country. And the researchers are busily filling out more applications, eager to take advantage of new stimulus funds allocated for biomedical research.
It is worth emphasizing that Florida has chosen not to draw upon universities or government laboratories as it develops these new campuses. Rather, the state and its counties have asked private research institutes to replicate their own outstanding successes. This is a key element in Florida's strategy: private research centers have more more flexibility in creating partnerships with industry than do most universities and government laboratories.
To that end, the state of Florida has set aside land for new high-tech and biotech companies adjacent to each of the new research centers. I hope that this second phase of the plan will not be too badly hurt by the current economic crisis. (See my previous post on this site, "High Tech at Risk.")
For now, the buoyant optimism of the nascent biomedical research institutes stands in sharp contrast to the eerie quiet of South Florida. In Miami, construction cranes hang still and silent above half-completed towers. The shining new residential buildings that dot the landscape seem empty and forlorn. In Boca Raton, the mood is similar. Traffic in Palm Beach has vanished. The mood at the Country Club is funereal, and the talk is of bereavement sessions for Madoff victims. Charity balls and auctions have mostly been canceled. Small groups gather for private dinners where bands once played for parties of thousands. Rumors swirl -- are one third of the houses in Palm Beach really for sale? -- and hopes of a rapid recovery seem distant. Let us hope that biotechnology will lead the way to renewed growth in Florida.
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