Palm Beach County‘s life science industry — controversial for the amount of tax dollars sunk into it more than a decade ago — will be put under a microscope for potential expansion.
Business Development Board president Kelly Smallridge on Tuesday unveiled an effort aimed at expanding the county’s life science businesses.
The economic development group is “going back to the table to inventory the county’s life science assets,” Smallridge said.
A $55,000 study by Maryland-based Facility Logix will help the Business Development Board understand the assets of the life science sector and identify gaps to better market the county, she said.
The county’s biotech sector includes Scripps Florida and the Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience in Jupiter, about 200 biotech companies, hospitals, and educational programs including Scripps, Max Planck and Florida Atlantic University’s School of Medicine.
Now that Florida’s economy has essentially recovered from the recession, Smallridge said it’s time for economic officials to make a bigger play for science-related businesses as well as figure how to keep spin-off companies from the institutes in the area.
Critics have questioned the large amount of incentives and land costs — $856 million — to bring the scientific research institutes toPalm Beach County. Some local officials expected a quicker payoff in jobs and new companies even though biotech experts warned that such communities take decades to build.
A decade after approving the 2003 deal, former county commissioners Burt Aaronson and Mary McCarty expressed their frustration, saying taxpayers overpaid for Scripps and there was no more money to give.
Costs of the new study, expected to be done by November, will be paid with $10,000 from Jupiter Medical Center and private fund-raising by the economic development board.
Local companies, nonprofits, universities, public officials and other stakeholders in biotech were invited to the Max Planck Institute on Tuesday for the kick-off of the study.
Palm Beach County Commissioner Hal Valeche said that while he is enthusiastic about the bioscience industry, the county and state haven’t done enough to take it forward.
“We got Scripps and Max Planck here and thought companies are going to show up,” he said. “It’s not going to happen unless we take a very active role in it.”
John Couris, CEO of Jupiter Medical Center, said the closing of the Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute in Port St. Lucie was a wake-up call.
“We need to think through what did work and what didn’t work,” he said.
Some business owners said incentives for biotech to start new companies here are an issue when states including New York and Texas are dangling big incentives to move.
Mark Emalfarb, CEO of Dyadic International in Jupiter, said he would like to spin off new companies in Palm Beach County. “If you don’t provide biotech companies with an economic advantage, they’re not going to come here.”
Some of the missing items in Palm Beach County‘s life science sector include an incubator to launch start-up companies from science developed at local institutes and a hospital where clinical trials can be held.
Despite this, the sector has seen growth “without those critical assets,” Smallridge said. “We’ve done pretty good.”
She points to about a dozen companies that have moved or expanded with the help of the Business Development Board, including biopharmaceutical manufacturer Sancilio & Co. in Riviera Beach and KRS Global Biotechnology, a pharmaceutical compounding service in Boca Raton.
Bioscience education in the county has made the biggest strides, she said.
Florida Atlantic University president John Kelly said this is a good time to take a reflective look at the county’s life science industry, which he said needs to work on retaining the students it trains in bioscience. Companies like Modernizing Medicine at FAU’s Research Park in Boca Raton will keep those students here, he said. “They can’t resist it,” Kelly said.
Dr. David Fitzpatrick, CEO of Max Planck Florida, said his institute is creating an international program in which students will come to the labs at the institute and FAU in Jupiter for a year and then to Max Planck’s lab in Bonn, Germany.
The program will bring in young talent to experience the area and see its assets. He said Florida is not perceived as the place where scientific discoveries come from.
The state and county already have spent a combined $856 million to land branches of Scripps, based in La Jolla, Calif., and Germany’s Max Planck Society. The investment has been controversial for the large amount of money directed toward one industry, an initiative led by now presidential candidate and former Gov. Jeb Bush, and what some see as a slim payoff so far in new companies and jobs.
In 2003, Gov. Bush suggested Scripps could be the engine for creating 44,000 highly paid biotech jobs in Florida by 2018.
Scripps now employs 646 in Florida, according to its website. Max Planck, which opened its institute in Florida in 2012, said it has created 140 jobs, which exceeds its incentive package requirement for 135 jobs by 2015.
In 2013, the Sun Sentinel reported that an estimated 944 jobs had been created at a cost of $471,398 a job. Proponents have said it was always expected to take from 20 to 30 years to create the biotech “cluster” of scientists and private businesses that was envisioned.
Earlier this year, the Palm Beach County Commission approved land that was once earmarked for biotech to be used for United Technologies Corp.’s new Building & Industrial Systems center to be built in Palm Beach Gardens, across from Scripps.
Smallridge said Scripps still has 70 acres of land zoned for biotech development, which also would be part of the Business Development Board’s marketing initiative. The Research Park at FAU in Boca Raton also is studying an expansion in northern Palm Beach County.