Late in September, Bioheart, a South Florida-based biotech company, opened a new facility overseas, the South African Stem Cell Institute and immediately began treating patients with their stem cell therapies for spinal cord injury, diabetes, arthritis, autoimmune disease and more.
As our state and our community very much need to grow knowledge-based industries, the Bioheart news is especially welcome.
Precisely what is the status of life sciences and advanced technology (the non-start-up arena) in the state? What are the challenges and opportunities it faces? What policies and actions are needed to enhance this sector?
The installed base of science and technology institutions in the state is good and dispersed both geographically and by industry sector. Florida is home to world-class biomedical research institutes and more than 1,000 biotech, pharmaceutical, and medical device companies employing over 25,000 professionals. This includes Scripps, Sanford-Burnham, Max Planck Institute, Torrey Pines, VGTI Florida, Draper Laboratory and UM’s Hussman Institute for Human Genomics. Florida ranks third nationwide for pharmaceutical and medicine manufacturing, and Florida universities invest over $1.2 billion annually in R&D in the life sciences. That includes all of the research-oriented state universities as well as the University of Miami.
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One must mention also the Florida Institute for the Commercialization of Research, which pairs commercially viable discoveries with management and capital. They promote economic development through commercialization and have helped firms such as U.S. Bioplastics, Accelogic, and Garmor.
The principal challenges facing Florida in the life sciences and advanced technology fields are human capital and wage rates. STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) are the future of the state’s economy, with 1-in-5 job postings in those fields; moreover, the top jobs typically pay double Florida’s average wage. Nearly 80 percent of the fastest growing careers are in STEM fields; and half of these jobs do not require a four-year college degree. Unfortunately, continuing poor performance by Florida students on the FCAT, especially in science and math, sends up a red flag to life sciences and tech companies thinking of expanding in the state or coming to the state. Many firms also complain about the preparedness of college graduates they seek to recruit.
The other challenge is wages. Examining comparative costs of life sciences companies vis-à-vis other states, Florida boasts a zero state income tax in the belief that is a game-changer. It is not. Massachusetts, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania all have state income taxes under 6 percent; yet the average wage rate, in biotechnology for example, is in many instances more than double Florida’s.
To strengthen Florida’s science and technology ecosystem, consideration should be given to:
l. Upgrading standards in secondary school and higher education, not watering down the FCAT and not lowering college admission and grading standards.
2. Instituting apprenticeship programs in life sciences and advanced technology, modeled after the Knight Foundation-funded Venture for America and Enstitute.
3. Advocating continuing professional education at all levels.
4. Pursuing cross-county coordination and cooperation to recruit companies.
5. Targeting those life sciences and advanced the fields that can provide the greatest impact to economic development and employment generation.
6. Promoting more vigorous commercialization of university research with strong IP and financial incentives for inventors.
7. Creating a public-private investment capital fund, like Philadelphia.
8. Considering an eMerge Americas in the life sciences, showcasing talent and companies in the state and inviting investors poised to fund them.
Miami-Dade County’s “One Community One Goal” initiative provides a sound road map from which the rest of the state could benefit as well.
The race is on to advance life sciences and technology, and the competition with other states for talent and investment dollars is intensifying. Florida must do much more to remain a contender.
Jerry Haar is a visiting scholar at Harvard and Georgetown universities and a business professor at Florida International University.