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New biotech building houses lab, office

Sunday, February 21, 2016   (0 Comments)
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Sue Washer during the tour of her new Applied Genetic Technologies Corporation building in Alachua, Florida.

Elizabeth Hamilton/Gainesville Sun
Published: Sunday, February 21, 2016 at 5:44 p.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, February 21, 2016 at 5:44 p.m.

ALACHUA — Despite considerable efforts to nurture the local biotech industry, it took a full-court press from Sue Washer of Applied Genetic Technologies Corporation and leaders at the University of Florida to make sure the growing company would not have to leave the area to find suitable lab and office space.

Last week, AGTC celebrated the opening of its new facility, the first of a planned four buildings in what is being called Foundation Park across U.S. 441 from its first home in Progress Park where it had cobbled together space in four different buildings before its move six weeks ago. The company has a 10-year lease on about half of the 40,000-square-foot building housing 42 of its 50 employees with expectations of hiring 10 more by June and another 10 over the next year.

Washer, AGTC's president and CEO, said she started looking for a larger lab and office building that could bring the company under one roof a couple years ago, but nothing was available. They were not alone. She said she learned of a half dozen or more other companies in the same boat.

Despite Progress Park's reputation as a biotech park, Washer said she couldn't sign a lease for existing space there let alone get a new building built by the new owner — a Massachusetts-based real estate investment trust.

Washer said the problem is that an absentee landlord that is not vested in the community is making decisions based on a set of financial criteria.

Lab space is expensive to build and few startups have the necessary financial track record or the ability to guarantee the need for a long-term lease to justify the investment for most developers.

Phil Hawley, one of the original owners and developers of Progress Park, came out of semi-retirement to put together a deal for the land owned by the UF Foundation.

 

Brian Crawford of Concept Companies, a partner in the deal, said they have had a good deal of interest from other companies and they can focus on leasing the remaining space now that AGTC's space is done.

For AGTC, the building represents an important step in the company's growth and development from a few years ago when they had seven people and didn't always have the resources to do the kind of science they wanted to do.

Washer said the building should make it easier to recruit new employees compared to when they were crammed into “four little hidey holes.”

“Even those with the company a long time are like, 'Wow, we're a real company now,'” she said.

AGTC was founded in 2001 from technology developed at UF. The company is developing gene therapies for the treatment of rare eye diseases and other genetic diseases. In an industry that takes eight to 12 years to receive regulatory approval and anywhere from a half-billion to a billion dollars to make it to market, the company has so far received $91 million in venture capital and grant funding, another $91 million from public stock offerings and $130 million to date through a licensing and collaboration deal with Boston-based Biogen.

Washer said its results from patient trials allowed AGTC to lure public financing at a time that the economy was robust and there was a lot of excitement about advances in the life sciences.

From its early years with a $2 million annual budget to 20 to 30 times that now, Washer said AGTC hopes to be able to move faster through the last stage ahead for two products now in phase II human clinical trials while at the same time developing a larger portfolio of other products than they were able to work on before.

Washer said they are able to hire a lot of people out of the University of Florida and Santa Fe College — SFC's Perry Center for Emerging Technologies is training biotech technicians next door — as well as from all over the country. About 60 percent of the staff is in science and production; 20 percent in quality assurance, regulatory and clinical jobs; and 20 percent in administration and business functions.

During a tour, Washer took visitors down a hallway with a view through large glass windows of the business offices on one side and labs on the other where employees in white lab coats and safety goggles stoop over work benches. She starts at one end with the PCR lab, which stands for polymerase chain reaction, where they are sequencing and putting together the genetic details of their products. Next comes the molecular biology lab where they do basic research and development to put together different components to build the products, a process called “cloning,” followed by a quality control lab where they test the products. A cell culture room keeps the cells used in manufacturing separate from other components so the cells are not contaminated. Lastly is the viral lab where the genetic material is put into a benign virus that will deliver a corrected copy of a gene to replace the mutated gene causing disease.

Washer said coordinated effort to get the building provides a lesson for the community that there is a path to network with other people to rally the community around a company “and help them grow and succeed in place vs. starting here and having to move somewhere.”

As a result, the employees stay, they spend their money at local businesses and the company continues to buy supplies and services in the local economy.


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