ALACHUA — Randy Scott recalls that when he first came to Progress Park in 1998, most of the biotech companies had fewer than five employees each “and pretty much the only money that was changing hands was at the weekly poker game.”
“We were sort of the Rodney Dangerfield of the Florida bio-industry cluster. We felt like we didn’t ‘get no respect.’ Perhaps at that moment in time, we didn’t deserve it, but I think things have changed a whole lot now,” said Scott, a partner with HealthQuest Capital venture capital firm and former CEO of NovaMin Technologies.
Scott spoke at the 11th annual Celebration of Biotechnology, a local trade show on the grounds of RTI Surgical that was staged by the statewide biotech trade association BioFlorida. The event drew an estimated 400 visitors and 100 people from biotech companies and the vendors who supply them.
From those humble beginnings, Progress Park is now home to 35 companies with nearly 1,200 employees.
Patti Breedlove, director of the University of Florida’s Sid Martin Biotechnology Incubator, said the growth is accelerating. Companies that got their start at the incubator have attracted $1 billion in capital since it opened in 1995, including $400 million in just the last two years, she said.
The last two years have also seen incubator company Pasteuria Bioscience’s acquisition by Swiss agribusiness giant Syngenta and RTI’s acquisition of Pioneer Surgical. A bus tour on Thursday showed progress on the construction of Nanotherapeutic’s 165,000-square-foot manufacturing facility near Progress Park and RTI’s newly completed logistics and technology center.
Within the past year, two companies in the business park have also raised a combined $68 million through initial public offerings. AxoGen and AGTC joined Gainesville-based Exactech and RTI on the Nasdaq stock exchange, meaning the greater Gainesville metro area has the most public biotech companies per capita in the nation, at least as many as all but a handful of states and 26 of 30 cities with NFL franchises, according to Scott.
“I think that’s really evidence of how the sector is maturing here and becoming much more important on a stage larger than just our local community,” Scott said.
Breedlove said a couple more local companies might go public in the next couple years and several developers are in talks to build more lab space in and around the park.
Among vendors attending the trade show on Thursday, Germfree Laboratories of Ormond Beach brought its mobile lab, a public health response lab in the back of an RV that will be shipped to Jordan for use by that nation’s ministry of health at the end of May. Brandon Rosendahl, who handles international business development for Germfree, said they received interest from local companies in their quick-built modular labs.
Many vendors were interviewed by students from Stephen Foster Elementary School, which brought 42 fourth-graders in the school’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) magnet program.
“I’ve learned about the equipment that people use to keep people healthy and I’ve also learned about how science relates to a lot of jobs,” said Audrey Clark, 10.
STEM lab teacher Carly Mikell said the school wanted to give students the opportunity to talk to people who use what they are being taught in the real world.
Phoebe Cade Miles of the Cade Museum for Creativity + Invention led students in a rendition of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” played on PVC pipes cut to different lengths to demonstrate the relationship between math and music by showing how the proportion of pipe sizes relates to musical pitches.
Richard Miles said the Cade Museum was on hand to let potential competitors know about the $50,000 Cade Prize for Florida companies and the museum’s broader mission “of trying to inspire the next generation of scientists.”
In addition to vendors, the event featured a tent showcasing biotech companies, among them TruVitals, which is developing a device that reads vital signs from animals and humans with no contact and no wires.
The device, invented by UF electrical and computer engineer Jenshan Lin, uses micro radar signals to detect respiration and heart rate.
Chief Technology Officer Karl Zawoy said TruVitals will first sell to the veterinary market to raise the $2 million to $3 million needed to apply for FDA approval for human use.
He said the device has had a lot of interest from zoos and sanctuaries that will be able to take vitals from large animals without having to anesthetize them. The larger market is for humans, including neonatal care and burn units, where it is important not to touch patients, he said.
TruVitals has received $700,000 from a corporate sponsor and private investors, and this week announced a $300,000 loan from the Florida Institute for the Commercialization of Public Research.
The new local chapter of the Association for Women in Science was on hand to sign up people interested in joining or attending meetings. Jennifer Thiaville, a post-doctoral microbiology researcher at UF, said the organization provides networking and professional development to encourage women to stay in male-dominated STEM fields.
“It’s open to men and women, anyone interested in promoting women and equality in the field,” she said.