Jeb Bush's Big Biotech Push

At this year's BIO conference, Florida's governor pitched an aggressive plan to make his state a biotech hub

One of the hallmarks of the annual Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) conference is a mating dance. Dozens of states set up colorful booths in the exhibit hall and try to attract biotech executives who are looking for the ideal place to launch a company. At this year's event in Chicago, Florida pulled out all the stops, bringing along its No. 1 champion -- Governor Jeb Bush, who was making his third BIO appearance.

On April 11, just hours before former President Bill Clinton told a standing-room-only crowd at the convention that biotech is the key to a sustainable future, Bush declared Florida a key player in the burgeoning industry. "I want Florida to be on the cutting edge," he told a small group of journalists.

Ever since the birth of the biotech industry 30 years ago, every state has tried to make itself into a biotech hub. But few have made much headway. The majority of the country's biotech companies are concentrated on the West and Northeast coasts, where they can access scientific brainpower from the country's most prestigious universities.


  Forty-two states set up shop at the conference, which attracted an estimated 18,000 biotech execs from around the world. Florida's battle to set itself apart is a microcosm of the larger campaign under way by states hoping to share the riches of the biotech boom. Bush quipped that when he landed at Chicago's O'Hare Airport, a police officer informed him that he was the 11th governor to arrive for the conference. "This is a very competitive area of economic development," Bush conceded.

Of all the states angling to lure biotech, Bush's might have one of the most aggressive plans. His 2006-07 budget proposal contains a number of biotech-friendly initiatives: $100 million for Florida universities to use to draw leading scientists to the state; $100 million to boost the state's science-focused Centers of Excellence; and $250 million to create the Florida Innovation Incentive Fund, which will provide research grants.

There have been some successes from the governor's plans to date. A 2003 investment of $30 million in the Centers of Excellence generated 40 patent filings, as well as six startup businesses that have created 47 new jobs. "The notion that Florida is just a place to visit or retire has been shattered to smithereens," Bush said.


  One of Florida's challenges has been to persuade biotech execs that they'll be able to access a meaty labor pool of highly educated scientists. The state, after all, is better known for oranges and Disney World than it is for high-class colleges. In March, Florida's Board of Governors took a major step towards changing that reputation by approving two new medical schools, at Florida International University and the University of Central Florida.

"We're growing our bioscience-research capability," says Ed Schous, a spokesman for the University of Central Florida, who spent much of the BIO conference manning the state's large booth. "That will bring the entire state forward."

Not all of the state's efforts have gone smoothly, though. Plans by the prestigious San Diego-based Scripps Research Institute to build a branch in Palm Beach County, Fla., have been mired in land disputes and legal fights over employment requirements. That irks Bush. "It's not helpful," he said. "We need to move away from political science and stay focused on life science." The San Diego-based Burnham Institute has also weighed Florida as a location to open a new campus. "I hope we get them," Bush added.


  Florida has one decided disadvantage, though: The state doesn't provide funding for embryonic stem cell research. Like his brother, President George W. Bush, Florida's governor opposes research on embryonic stem cells, which have the potential to grow into many different types of tissues, and thus might someday be used to grow replacement organs and treat a number of diseases.

"I don't believe the state should provide a financial incentive to support any research related to the killing of embryos," Bush said. "There are many other options available." But that lack of support could make it difficult for Florida to lure stem-cell scientists away from states such as California and New Jersey, both of which provide funding for stem-cell research.

In a lunchtime address, former President Clinton steered clear of the stem-cell debate. Instead he focused on biotech's ability to develop alternative fuel sources and to use crop science to improve food production in poor, hungry countries.


  During his Administration, some criticized Clinton for supporting the development of biotech crops, engineered to resist pests and contain other traits that improve crop yields. Clinton said he would change his stance if someone were to provide him with evidence that biotech crops are dangerous. But for now, his position stands. "We need more people to be able to grow their own food," he said during his address. "Let's stick with the evidence and look to the future," he added. "I think on balance it looks pretty good."

Politics aside, local governors in many states continue to hold out hope that they'll grab a significant piece of the biotech pie. In a place like Florida, the effort is backed by passion and persistence. David Gury, who founded Boca Raton (Fla.)-based Nabi Pharmaceuticals in 1984, recalls struggling to recruit young scientists to work at his company. "The big question I got was, 'If it doesn't work out, can I go down the street and get another job?" recalls Gury, who has since retired. "I said, 'Probably not.'"

Gury was on a trade mission to Israel with Jeb Bush in 1998 when he lobbied the governor to try to make Florida a more biotech-friendly place. Gury believes Bush's initiatives are starting to pay off, though the state has a long way to go. "We're nowhere on the list of biotech states," Gury says. "Yet."