Push is on to expand area's biotech workforce

Sun Sentinel September 4, 2015

For four years, life-science entrepreneur Steve Glover used to travel every week from his home near Fort Lauderdale to San Francisco. That's where he could find people with the skills he needed to build his life-science companies.

But a year ago, he started a Weston company, Variant Pharmaceuticals, to develop potential drugs for rare diseases.

"My wife said I was tired of traveling and I got mad enough to start a business," Glover joked.

But the disappointing pace of growth of South Florida's biotech industry is no laughing matter to entrepreneurs, public officials and taxpayers who have been investing hundreds of millions of dollars over more than a decade.

Employment in biotech – including pharmaceutical; research, testing and laboratories; and medical devices -- was 14,164 in the tri-county metro area in 2012, according to Battelle, a research and development organization based in Columbus, Ohio. By comparison, key biotech hubs employed tens of thousands: the New York-New Jersey metro region had 89,499 workers, and San Francisco had 39,158.

Frustrated by the difficulty in finding qualified research and development employees in South Florida, Glover and other life-science executives are stepping up their efforts to help the region develop the long-promised biotech cluster of new companies, laboratories, research institutes, hospitals, manufacturers and investment firms.

A critical component is a skilled workforce, the CEOs say. They would like to see a bigger pipeline of research talent coming from local universities. At the same time, they need higher-level workers with experience who can shepherd new drugs through clinical trials and the stringent FDA approval process.

Meanwhile, local universities say they are producing students with the right academic skills. But they want to increase the number of local internships so their life-science students can gain experience that will qualify them for jobs in the sector.

Big county and state investment
Growing the biotech industry is especially important to Palm Beach County, which since 2003 has contributed $856 million in land and incentives to bring two research institutes to Jupiter: Scripps from San Diego and Max Planck from Germany. Public officials and entrepreneurs expected the institutes to have by now generated more jobs, capital investment, and spin-off companies.

Despite the disappointing results, Palm Beach County wants to keep moving forward. The county's business development board recently hired Maryland-based Facility Logix to conduct an inventory of life-science companies and other assets, and make recommendations about how to best market and expand the industry.

In pitching the new study, Business Development Board President Kelly Smallridge said Palm Beach County needs to figure out how to retain biotech start-up companies and talent.

Of Scripps Florida's half dozen spin-offs, most have left for larger biotech hubs. Spin-offs include Padlock Therapeutics, now in Cambridge, Mass.; Ember Therapeutics, in Watertown, Mass.; and Sirenas Marine Discovery in San Diego. Remaining in the region are Curna, purchased by Opko Health in Miami; and Xcovery in West Palm Beach.

Florida's increased focus on life science research began with former Gov. Jeb Bush, who spearheaded investment of more than $500 million in state and local money in biotech. His idea was to make the state's economy less reliant on tourism, agriculture and real estate/construction. But Bush's efforts have come under new scrutiny as he runs for president because the economic benefits failed to live up to promises.

Titcomb of Noble Life Sciences said Gov. Bush had the right idea, but it takes a long time to develop a biotech cluster. At a dozen years after the Scripps investment, "we're starting to percolate now, but we still don't have an ecosystem. You have a lot of pockets," he said.

But the pace hasn't been quick enough for some entrepreneurs.

North Carolina-based Heat Biologics founder Jeff Wolf said he moved his cancer-treatment development company from Miami to the Research Triangle Park in Durham, N.C. in 2011 because he couldn't find the capital and people with the skills he needed.

He isn't surprised that Florida's multi-million dollar investment in research institutions hasn't yet paid off.

"I don't think that's where a state should be investing its resources, if you don't have the other elements – capital and talent -- as well," he said.

Wolf said he did get help from the University of Miami technology transfer team, "when we had very little resources."

But Heat Biologics ultimately moved because "we found we couldn't attract good quality people to South Florida," he said. In comparison, Research Triangle Park in Durham "has a very good talent pool, with experience running and managing clinical trials. We also have a great research lab. We've hired from schools here and other biotech companies."

Heat Biologics, which develops cancer-fighting treatments that employ people's immune systems, is now a publicly held company with a market value of $34 million and 20 employees.

Local CEOs to address workforce issue
To help solve the workforce issue and impediments, a dozen CEOs of South Florida biotech companies have formed the Life Science Executive Council. Leading the effort are Shawn Titcomb, managing director for Boca Raton-based Noble Life Science Partners, which has investments in local life science companies, and Jules Musing, former global head of biotechnology licensing at Johnson & Johnson, who resides in Palm Beach County.

"We're trying to get to the point where private and public funding work together, to capitalize on job creation. The biggest missing ingredient is the skilled workforce," Titcomb said. "And we're trying to figure out a way to get the universities to truly understand what the needs are, so they can create curriculum."

Rod Murphey, chair of the department of biological sciences at Florida Atlantic University, which offers degree programs in Boca Raton and Jupiter, said FAU is graduating students in its life science degree programs, but it takes time for them to gain the experience needed by these growing companies.

Biological sciences is FAU's largest department, with 2,365 undergraduate and 146 graduate students. Thirty of the graduate students are working with FAU's research lab, Scripps Florida or the Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience, all located on the same campus in Jupiter.

One student benefitting from the proximity of the research centers is Melissa Borgen, a 2014 FAU graduate now pursuing post-doctoral studies at Scripps Florida, which offers doctoral degrees in chemistry, chemical biology and the biological sciences.

"She did her [doctorate] at FAU and walked across the lawn and is now doing her post-doc at Scripps," Murphey said. "She didn't have to move."

Ralph Rogers, provost and executive vice president for academic affairs at Nova Southeastern University in Davie, said Nova is building a 100,000-square-foot research lab, expected to open in February, and is working to get approval from Hospital Corporation of America to build a research and teaching hospital on campus.

"We're raising our footprint and experience in the life-science research areas," he said.

NSU has a large student internship program with local employers. In biotech and health, those include Modernizing Medicine in Boca Raton, Holy Cross Hospital in Fort Lauderdale, and Sheridan Healthcare, which is moving its headquarters to Plantation.

Although graduates don't always stay in South Florida, "everyone in our graduate program in our health sciences seems to be finding work," Rogers said.

Companies recruit out of state for talent
South Florida's bioscience company executives say they must recruit from more established biotech hubs to find the talent they need.

In recruiting employees for his new firm in Weston, Variant Pharmaceuticals, Steve Glover said he found some former co-workers still living in the area, but many others who have left the state.

"The high-level jobs become problematic," he said. "If you're looking for a chief medical officer that has product development experience, that's a very hard thing to find in Florida."

One company is making its Boca Raton operation work by recruiting outside the state, but it will soon need more local workers as it grows.

"We found a few people locally, but the majority have come from the Northeast," said John Milligan, president of TherapeuticsMD, which is conducting clinical trials on new hormone replacement therapies for women with menopausal symptoms.

The company typically hires people with five to 10 years' experience working with clinical trials and with FDA regulatory experience, and who have experience in women's health issues, he said.

"We just hired someone from University of Florida and a couple people from Florida Atlantic University, but the reality is we don't have many positions that are for a recent college graduate," Milligan said.

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