Research parks like Progress Park part of Florida economy's lifeblood
Published: Tuesday, March 18, 2014 at 8:54 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, March 18, 2014 at 8:54 a.m.
In a lab at the University of Florida Sid Martin Biotech Incubator in Alachua, Tiara King peers into a microscope to study nematodes while her co-workers view Pasteuria spores and conduct quality-control experiments on the microscopic critters.
“I came down here for this job specifically,” said King, a plant pathologist from Virginia hired 2½ years ago to manage the Pasteuria Bioscience Syngenta Lab at Sid Martin. “I wouldn't be in Florida otherwise.”
For King, this is her dream job, “a fairy tale with a lot of work.”
Hundreds of people with advanced degrees in science, engineering and other disciplines — like King — have migrated to North Central Florida, lured by the high-tech job magnet in Progress Park, 14 miles north of UF's main campus.
Nestled against the rolling San Felasco Hammock Preserve State Park, the 204-acre Progress Park includes the biotech incubator and 34 other tenants, most of them bioscience and tech companies that sprung from discoveries made by UF researchers.
As Sid Martin Biotech's website says, it's where science does business.
About 1,100 people work in the park, engaged in advanced technologies in pest control, nerve regeneration, cancer diagnostics and biomedical delivery systems to name several.
Progress Park is one of nine university-affiliated research parks in Florida, according to a recent report by Florida TaxWatch, a nonpartisan, not-for-profit public policy research group and government watchdog in Tallahassee.
Florida has more research parks than any other state in the U.S., with 20,000 people commuting to one each day. Those research parks play a huge role in Florida's innovative economy, creating local jobs and bringing new products to market on a national and global scale.
“Florida is trying to develop an economy based on innovation,” Florida TaxWatch economist Jerry Parrish said. “A lot of inventions are coming out of universities, working in combination with national labs like the National High Magnetic Field Lab in Tallahassee.”
An added benefit is these research parks help keep the brain power and economic muscle local. “Any time you can commercialize an invention and keep its development in state — a high percentage will stay in the state if we help develop them,” he said.
Parrish drew his observations on the 2013 Association of University Research Parks report. Among its findings was that each incubator produced nine new businesses that had graduated from its program over the past five years, Parrish said. A quarter of those businesses stayed in the research park, while nearly half stayed in the same region, he said.
The private sector plays a huge role in research parks, the report said — 79 percent of the total, with only 10 percent college- and university-funded and the rest government-funded.
Also, the report said, research parks have a multiplier effect of 2.5, so for those 20,000 research park commuters in Florida another 50,000 are working in ancillary fields, said Ben DeVries, chairman of the Florida Research Park Network.
“Research parks are designed to be that transition or bridge from the university, to harness all that intellectual capital into commerce,” DeVries said.
On a local level, the research parks create jobs for lab supply companies that provide beakers and test tubes, he said. Those companies need accountants and so on.
“It's like the airline agent who depends on Mickey attracting tourists,” DeVries said, adding that Florida has more research parks than it has theme parks.
Research parks continue to be a good investment of public and private resources, he said, because they spark productivity and innovation.
DeVries is CEO of Treasure Coast Education Research and Development Authority, created by a 2005 Florida statute. He co-founded the network to push for more funding and development of research parks in Florida and to get the Legislature to view research as a separate sector of the economy.
“We think Florida has this great potential on the research side that isn't being expanded to its full potential,” he said.
Florida might not have the recognition of the Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, which was started in the 1950s, in part because Florida's parks haven't been around as long. But they're catching up, he said.
Progress Park was started in 1987 at the urging of former UF President Robert Marston. It is privately owned and managed by SNH Medical Office Properties Trust in Newton, Mass., albeit with a heavy UF flavor shaped in large part by the presence of RTI Biologics, a spinoff of UF research technology.
UF has a huge presence in the park with its biotech incubator, leasing its labs, greenhouses, offices, vivariums and shared equipment to private startups. As one of the nation's biggest leaders in technology transfer, UF's presence lends the research park credibility.
Last year, the Sid Martin Biotech Incubator was ranked the world's best university incubator out of 150 other incubators it was compared to by a Swedish-based research group.
“We've done a lot to knit together a sense of community,” said Patti Breedlove, director of the biotech incubator.
While the park has never done an economic impact study, Sid Martin did a third-party study that showed it had an annual economic impact of $100 million, Breedlove said. And that was before some of the biggest announcements of companies taking off in the past year and a half.
“It's certainly greater than that now,” she said.
Nanotherapeutics is the best example, she said. “Their projects weren't even awarded when that study was done,” she said.
And Applied Genetics Technologies, a biotech developing treatments for orphan eye diseases, filed a $70 million initial public offering with the Securities and Exchange Commission in January.
Syngenta — the company that bought Pasteuria Bioscience in November 2012 — is putting its first research-based product for a large-scale crop — soybeans — on the market, said Kelly Smith, Pasteuria site head for Syngenta. The product kills pests that attack the roots of the soybeans, she said.
“It's a unique product offering; it's a control for a pest for which there are a limited number of products on the market,” Smith said.
If it succeeds, she said, it will really set off Syngenta from its competitors.
Research parks bring higher-wage jobs than average, people with a wide range of education levels from lab managers to secretaries and cleaning people, and create jobs in the communities for trailing spouses.
“You diversify the economy, which has a strong local impact,” Breedlove said. “It also is changing the world in positive ways and drawing attention to our communities in favorable ways.”
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