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Biotech payoff like Rome — not built in a day

Monday, November 2, 2015   (0 Comments)
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Palm Beach County’s bioscience corridor feels more secure as new leaders from both The Scripps Research Institute and the Max Planck Society in Germany are demonstrating commitment to the institutions’ futures.

Given Floridians’ huge investment in the corridor, and turmoil in Port St. Lucie to the north, that’s important.

The new president of the 83-institute Max Planck Society, chemist Martin Stratmann, visited from Germany last week for a board meeting and tour of the labs at Max Planck’s Florida Institute for Neuroscience in Jupiter.

Two weeks earlier, the incoming president of The Scripps Research Institute, biochemist Steve Kay, returned to Florida to see how the organization he helped launch with then-Gov. Jeb Bush in 2003 had unfolded.

Kay is a familiar face here. He was one of the former Scripps faculty members who was involved in selecting Palm Beach County for its expansion. He has been a dean at the University of Southern California. Scripps came close to becoming a wholly owned subsidiary of USC under the leadership of Scripps’ former president, Michael Marletta, and so Kay’s return is being seen as a recommitment to plans made a decade ago. He’ll work alongside a CEO, noted biotech entrepreneur chemist Peter Schultz.

“It was a massively proud moment for me to return to that campus two weeks ago and see that the things we promised are bearing fruit in droves,” Kay said. “This is really the time to double down and reinvigorate what we did in Scripps Florida when it was founded.”

Both Stratmann and Kay were clearly pleased with the scientific advances made in Florida, and both are rightly concerned that the “small cluster” of research institutes here grows to full potential. As they’ve noted, this is a long-term project that requires patience.

It’s best to buy low and sell high when it comes to investments. But in hindsight, that’s not what Florida originally did with its bioscience bet. Bush went all-in just as the industry was peaking. As it contracted, there have been casualties along the way, most notably VGTI Florida in Port St. Lucie, which is now closed, and in litigation with the city and taxpayers who subsidized it.

But venture capital money is moving back into biotech, and the Jupiter corridor is buzzing where it counts, in the attraction of top scientific talent. Scripps Florida’s take of federal National Institutes of Health grants rose from about $29 million in 2014 to $36 million this year, according to NIH data.

At Max Planck’s Neuroscience Institute, Scientific Director Ryohei Yasuda just received word that he’s been awarded a $4.8 million pioneer grant from the NIH. He said he’ll use it to study the signaling that takes place between brain cells. He wants to track how each biochemical messenger sent into the gap between neurons causes receiving brain cells to respond and change. This is the kind of deep understanding that’s needed for such disorders as Alzheimer’s disease, depression and autism.

Next month, the Florida Cabinet will hold its November meeting at the bioscience campus. Gov. Rick Scott, who vetoed $1.5 million earmarked for Scripps Florida last spring, will no doubt be pitched ideas for capitalizing on the small cluster that taxpayers have built. Ideas like an honors undergraduate program linking Florida Atlantic University to Scripps and Max Planck, and a subsidized business incubator for small spin-off companies to launch — there are three in the works right now — merit a close look.

It’s easy to forget that it’s not just Palm Beach County and Florida taxpayers who have subsidized the institutes. Germany’s taxpayers are bound to the Max Planck project as well, to a tune of about $10 million a year.

Stratmann called the science done in the United States “the best in the world,” and said being here is allowing for the spark of innovation, creativity and bold risk-taking characteristic of U.S. science to produce good things for Germany, too.

“Keep the vision alive, and I am sure that the county and the state will benefit, and Germany will benefit, too,” he said.


Abbott

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