By SHARON HILLSTROM | FOCUS ON MANATEE November 24, 2014
When Laila Abdullah, a researcher at the Bradenton area's Roskamp Institute, won a nearly $1 million grant to study Gulf War illness, it was a major success in the young woman's life and the institute's programs. It also signaled a success for the region's biotech industry, where creating a path for developing and retaining talent is a key to attracting and growing businesses that offer high-wage careers.
Abdullah graduated from a high school in Orlando, then the University of South Florida in Tampa, and ultimately earned her doctorate degree in neuroscience at the Roskamp Institute. A mere 18 months later, she won the federal research grant.
The institute's doctorate program, launched in 2010, has three graduates. All have remained on staff at the renowned research center, which recently announced another breakthrough in understanding and potentially treating Alzheimer's disease.
When you hear "biotech workforce," you may not immediately think of the Bradenton area, but there are many pieces in place to counter that perception, according to James Humphrey, Roskamp's chief operating officer.
"Laila's success gives you an idea of the talent that is here -- a local young researcher that obviously has tremendous talent and could have gone and worked anywhere, and she chose to stay local," he said. "We see local institutions moving in that direction, being very proactive to make sure that courses and degrees they offer in biotech are relevant to what industry needs."
Humphrey points to State College of Florida, Manatee-Sarasota, where the associate's degree in biotechnology is closely aligned with industry to help shape curriculum to produce graduates who are "workforce ready." New College of Florida also tailors its biosciences courses to industry needs and both institutions are proactive in placing interns locally. Businesses like Roskamp take college interns or volunteers from high schools to give students exposure
to industry early on.
Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine (LECOM) at Lakewood Ranch now offers a Masters in Health Services Administration. The degree is relevant not just to healthcare, but also to the business side of biotech, which requires understanding government compliance and all aspects of business administration.
BioFlorida, the statewide association for businesses in the life sciences, also provides a key element through a local chapter that has won statewide recognition for early success. BioFlorida connects all of the different companies and aspects of life sciences, such as pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals, research labs, and medical device design and manufacturing.
Through programs developed by the local BioFlorida chapter, students gain exposure to a mosaic of career opportunities. The group held an expo in September at New College, and more than 150 people in business and education attended.
Humphrey of Roskamp believes the life sciences industry is reaching critical mass in the Bradenton area.
"The industry is growing so fast here that we formed another company, SRQ Bio, to work with others on their projects - providing clinical trials or testing to help advance their compounds," he said. "These are resources that would have required them to go outside our area; now they can keep the work local."
From education to internships to full-time careers at growing biotech businesses, and then to attracting more such businesses, Humphrey believes the Bradenton area's biotech workforce ecosystem is coming full circle.
"There's a momentum building in the Bradenton area. It's becoming a very attractive place for life sciences companies to locate," Humphrey said. "There's great potential here."
Sharon Hillstrom, president and chief executive officer of the Bradenton Area Economic Development Corp., can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 941-803-9035.