Published: Saturday, November 7, 2015 at 10:25 p.m.
Southwest Florida economic developers say there at least 2,000 people in Sarasota and Manatee counties right now working for companies in what they are calling the health innovation core.
Twenty-five of them have one to 10 employees. Another 17 are what EDC types call “Stage Two,” with 10 to 99 employees.
Six more have more than 100 employees each on their payrolls.
It's not a huge base, relatively speaking, but it's momentum that economic developers hope to capitalize on in coming years. It also is sure to be a major topic of discussion this week during what economic developers and participating companies are calling “Health Innovation Week,” an effort to shine a light on what could become a critical component of the region's economic future.
The regional effort to grow jobs in the field could get a substantial shot in the arm with the recent revelation that Schroeder-Manatee Ranch Inc., the developer of Lakewood Ranch, proposes an ambitious plan to create a 265-acre, 4.5 million-square-foot biomedical research park — or roughly twice as much square footage as all the high-rise office buildings in downtown Sarasota.
Assuming the project in Lakewood Ranch happens, there will eventually be plenty of room for the current start-ups and many more to expand within the region to whatever size they want, and to collaborate to their hearts' content.
The plan could be the holy grail that helps the region attain critical mass as a destination for highly paid job candidates with specialized skills in biotech, information sciences and health care, says Caroline Popper, a biotechnology and health sciences consultant who lives in Sarasota.
Existing companies don't yet make a “cluster,” but that Schroeder-Manatee's proposal could help create one, Popper says.
“With a cluster, there is a level of critical mass that starts to attract people and money around it,” the consultant said, adding that having a number of companies to choose from is a big draw for professionals in the industry, making it easier to recruit more of them.
“People want to have some job prospects, some mobility,” Popper said. “If they don't like it here, they can go there. So there is a real opportunity to get an experienced workforce, and that requires a cluster.”
Here's a company you've likely never heard of that is doing something cool on Main Street in Sarasota.
It's called HeadRehab, and it makes virtual reality software. The company asks a patient to put on 3-D goggles, or seat them in a room with 3-D television. Then workers ask the patient to “travel” through a maze, so that the software can measure the person's spatial memory. Or they measure the patient's balance by putting the subject in a virtual room and then gently tipping the whole room, walls floor and ceiling.
Normally, the only folks that get to see projects like this are the scientists and clinicians who might be customers — and then eventually their patients.
But this week is Health Innovation Week, sponsored in part by the members of the Sarasota-Manatee chapter of the BioFlorida trade group.
So on Thursday afternoon from 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m., anybody who wants to can show up at the State College of Florida medical campus at Lakewood Ranch, 5540 Communications Parkway, and try their luck at the maze.
“We'll be doing demos,” HeadRehab co-founder and partner Craig Anderson said. “They'll put on goggles and we can show them what the software is. It's kind of of fun. Kids like it. The way we use the VR is pretty unique.”
At the same get-together, folks can learn about the novel anti-infection drugs being developed by a company that normally keeps to itself but has huge potential, Lakewood-Amedex.
The company has been trying to come up with a cure for MRSA , or methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, a life-threatening bacterial infection.
Lakewood-Amedex may have one in the works. But along the way, the researchers at this tiny but potent firm came up with a new class of drugs, which can kill bacteria by changing the electrical charge on their cell membranes. Their first target will be to stop infections in diabetes patients suffering from infected ulcerated areas on their skin.
The company has already raised more than $5 million, controls 75 patents, and is waiting for FDA approval to conduct clinical trials with humans, Lakewood-Amedex communications director Dave Carr said.
HeadRehab and Lakewood-Amedex are two of the 13 companies who want to make themselves better known as part of Health Innovation Week.
Meanwhile, Voalte is holding its first-ever conference for the hospitals that are now using the Sarasota company's innovative health care communications system built around the iPhone.
“We have over 150 hospital customers right now,” Voalte co-founder and CEO Trey Lauderdale said.
Lauderdale expects more than 100 medical technologists to show up this week for the company's VUE15, a closed event that runs Wednesday and Thursday at the Hyatt Regency Sarasota.
“Everybody from IT to decision makers,” he said.
The public schedule for Health Innovation Week starts Monday at 10:30 a.m. with an open house at CAE Healthcare, owner and proprietor of the human patient simulator dummies. Developed in Sarasota, these smart dummies — programmed to convey changing heart rate, respiration rate and blood pressure — are now being used train medical workers all over the world in how to deal with a cardiac arrest, traumatic shock, and other life-threatening conditions.
These Stage Two and the early Stage Three companies are the ones that tend to add the most jobs most quickly. That is why Mark Huey, president of the Economic Development Corp. of Sarasota County, is so tuned into the needs of Voalte and its fellow companies.
“The first thing is to really support the companies that are here, and that is really what Health Innovation Week is about,” Huey said. “Raising their visibility in our marketplace attracts resources that help them to grow.”
Even before Health Innovation week or Schroeder-Manatee's biomedical park announcement, there were signs that the region is gaining critical mass in the jobs economic developers are seeking.
This can be best measured by those on the front lines, like Ian Leventhal, a managing partner in AP Professionals, a professional employment recruiting firm. Leventhal works out of Sarasota while his two partners work from Arizona and New York.
“I always looked at Florida as an emerging market,” Leventhal said. “Now I look at Florida as a maturing market when it comes to life sciences.”
He raised the example of RPS Diagnostics, one of the companies doing a show-and-tell as part of the BioFlorida portion of Health Innovation Week.
The RPS system revolves around testing for human antibodies, trying to stave off a bacterial threat, within a small disposable test kit that can be used in a doctor's office to provide an instant test result.
The first test, already on the market for patients showing signs of pink eye, or conjunctivitis. By testing a teardrop, the clinic can tell immediately whether a particular case is viral or bacterial. If it is viral, there is no point in administering antibiotics.
Because the test kit is measuring antibodies generated by the human patient to fight off an invader, it also can be used in a large variety of other ways, given enough ingenuity on the part of the RPS development team. They are working on test kits for everything from flu to nerve gas.
“Companies are looking more at platforms, and technologies that you can do a lot with than just targeting one drug,” Leventhal said. “They can operate real small, not have a lot of people, but be powerful. RPS — what they are doing now — that would not have been possible 20 years ago.”