UF's plans for biotech centers ready for review


Published: Thursday, January 9, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, January 9, 2003 at 12:39 a.m.

Sheldon Schuster envisions the Gainesville region as the future headquarters of regenerative health biotechnology. It could be the premier place where scientists conduct top-level research in such fields as tissue replacement and adult stem cell therapy.

"When you think about the companies we already have here, combined with the research that's going on at the University of Florida, we have a real shot at being the epicenter for that type of industry," said Schuster, director of UF's biotechnology program.

Schuster will know soon if there's any chance of that becoming a reality. A state-appointed panel is currently reviewing proposals to create "centers of excellence" at state universities under a program established last year by Gov. Jeb Bush.

Next week in Tallahassee, two such proposals submitted by UF will be considered by the Emerging Technology Commission, a nine-member group. The state has committed $30 million for the program's first year. With a minimum of $10 million awarded to each selected proposal, no more than three will be accepted.

When the commission finishes its work next week, it will have reviewed 16 proposals from around the state. It will then forward its recommendations to the Florida Board of Education by Feb. 1, and the winning proposals will be announced in subsequent weeks.

Commission member Penny Haskins said the review process "has been fascinating" to this point. Haskins is chief executive officer of Radiation Technologies Inc., a firm in Alachua that designs and makes radiation sensor systems.

"At the end of the first day of reviews, I was already impressed," Haskins said. "There's a lot of really great research going on in Florida right now."

All proposals up for review next week in Tallahassee - including UF's other initiative, which is to create a center for particle sciences - are based in biotechnology. Previous proposals have come from a variety of university efforts and all are technology-based, Haskins said.

The $30 million for the program's first year in funding centers is already approved, but given the state's current budget situation, future funding could be in doubt.

Haskins said if the "centers for excellence" program does not get state funding next year, it could be strong enough to attract private investments to support its efforts.

Schuster, who was the lead investigator for UF's regenerative health proposal, said the plans call for renovating two buildings in Alachua formerly occupied by Regeneration Technologies Inc. RTI recently moved into a set of new, neighboring buildings in Progress Corporate Park.

RTI's old complex would be converted to a "bio-processing facility," Schuster said. The goal would be to combine UF's research efforts and the expertise of local companies like RTI, Ixion Biotechnology Inc. and US Biomaterials, he said.

The proposal also outlines the possibility of moving Santa Fe Community College's biotech training facility to the building.

"This is really an incredible opportunity for not only research but workforce development," Schuster said. "These students could literally be walking right down the hall to their new jobs when they graduate."

Joe Coombs can be reached at (352) 338-3102 or coombsj@gvillesun.com.

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