Celebration of biotechnology highlights life science successes

Eleven years ago, about 40 people attended an exhibition on the patio of the UF Sid Martin Biotechnology Incubator designed to showcase life science companies from the area. Today, that small get-together has grown and evolved into a Celebration of Biotechnology that highlights the tremendous success coming out of Alachua’s Progress Park.

The 11th annual celebration on May 1, hosted on the lawn of RTI Surgical, featured 80 tables comprised of local biotech companies showing off their advances and service providers selling everything from stationery to lab equipment. About 500 attended the event, including a group of grade-schoolers from the S.T.E.M. program at Stephen Foster Elementary School.

Patti Breedlove, the Sid Martin director, said that growth in the local biotech industry is accelerating, as evidenced by several high-profile announcements in less than two years like Nanotherapeutics breaking ground on a new facility, AxoGen debuting on the NASDAQ and AGTC filing for a $50 million IPO.

Since opening in 1995, she said, Sid Martin has processed more than $1 billion in research funding, $400 million of which came through in the last two years. Progress Park currently holds 35 biotechnology companies with 1,200 employees, 500 of which work for RTI, and Breedlove said that the demand for more office and lab space is only growing.

Randy Scott, a partner in HealthQuest Capital, said that he’s worked in the park about 15 years and moved from Maryland with US Biomaterials, a company that was in the middle of an IPO that eventually spawned two more successful companies.

“Back then things were a lot different. RTI was the UF Tissue Bank and the only money changing hands was at the weekly poker game,” he said. “In the late ‘90s we were like the Rodney Dangerfield of Florida biotech. We ‘didn’t get no respect.’”

But even then, he said, something unique was happening as people from different companies came together and solved problems by sharing tips and loaning equipment. A fledgling community turned into a wildly successful operation that’s resulted in Exactech, AxoGen, RTI and now AGTC going public.

“Back them the idea of a company on the NASDAQ seemed fantastical,” he said. “Now we have four on there in the biomedical technology sector. There are only 400 biotechnology companies on the NASDAQ worldwide. There are very few large metro areas that have four companies on NASDAQ … and we have more here per capita than any place, period. That’s quite an accomplishment.”

Rob Phillips, a representative from the New York NASDAQ, said that he is constantly amazed at the innovation that can come from researchers just being able to talk to each other. “That’s the kind of innovation that creates jobs. That’s what fascinates us,” he said.

Nancy Bryan, president and CEO of BioFlorida, the event’s primary sponsor, said that she has seen growth all around the state, as major corporations like the Cancer Treatments of America and Bristol-Myers Squibb are choosing to relocate their headquarters here in Florida, creating 579 jobs over the next three years.

“There are more than 500 people here at this event,” she said. “We have representatives here from the entire bioscience community. It truly is a testament to the strength of the industry in this area.”

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