By Fred Olds
Getting things done. How does a business get things done with invasive regulations, bureaucracy, and uncertain taxes and personnel costs? These are significant barriers. Yet, three world-class research institutes on the West Coast have risked a move east to form a biotech cluster with a local hospital in the Traditions Center in Port St. Lucie, FL. The site’s principals are confident of success and argue that their collaborative style may be a model for business and government synergy in similar ventures.
A business-friendly climate and incentives convinced the Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Studies, the Vaccine and Genetic Therapy Institute, and the Mann Research Center to open operations in the Traditions Center for Innovation (TCI) in Port St. Lucie. Martin Memorial Health Systems (MMHS), a six-time winner of the Thompson Reuters top 100 hospitals, decided to join the venture to provide a community hospital campus designed for clinical research. The principals say success lies in their independence, entrepreneurial spirit, acceleration of business, and, perhaps most importantly, collaboration.
“This is a new model,” says Larry Pelton, president of the Economic Development Council of St. Lucie County. “The TCI development is a purposeful build.” The decisions of what to build and whom to recruit are the result of collaboration among the scientists and the community. It is an ongoing process among the health science tenants and the community, designing growth they agree will attract others and result in spin-offs and marketable therapeutics.
A Brief History
Early in the past decade, then Governor Jeb Bush set Florida on a path toward an education-based economy. Traditional industries regularly proved their susceptibility to economic and meteorological events. So, the legislatures authorized funds and resources to attract technology to the state. One of the first attracted to Florida was Richard Lerner, M.D., president, Scripps Research Institute, who opened a Scripps campus in Jupiter, FL. Lerner was taken with the opportunity. So, he contacted Richard Houghten, Ph.D., CEO, founder, and president of Torrey Pines, and recommended that Houghten take a look at Florida.
Houghten did so with the expectation that he’d take a vacation and return to work relaxed. Instead, he says, “I fell in love with Florida by itself.” What he found, says Houghten, was a business-political team with a clear plan for the future. “It’s a place where they want things to happen, and it’s a vibrant place that’s not just interested in building a cluster, but building an entire community.”
Andrew Favata, VP of Mann Research Center, says this is a dramatic advantage to Port St. Lucie and TCI. The government and developers planned carefully for near- and long-term growth. The traditional tech corridors merely evolved. This often left communities with labs and homes but few schools or shopping and little room for expansion. TCI is a 150-acre tech center in a 2,200-acre mixed-use development. Consideration was given to living there as well as working there.
Houghten found out plans can move quickly. He worked with the city of Port St. Lucie on construction of Torrey Pines’ new 100,000-square-foot facility. Twenty acres were deeded by Core Communities, LLC, the construction was permitted, and the headquarters built in less than two years. Pelton says ground was being broken as the signatures landed on the permits. “In California,” says Houghten, “permitting would have taken one to two years.”
Jay Nelson, Ph.D., founder and executive director of Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute (VGTI), says he was contacted by Houghten and encouraged to take a look. Nelson welcomed the atmosphere in Florida and saw opportunity. He wrote a business plan focused on translational research in human immunology based on the animal research the institute was doing in Oregon. He said VGTI hit the ground running. In space he borrowed from Torrey Pines until his building is completed in 2012, Nelson began research, including clinical trials at Martin Memorial.
Favata says Mann’s search for expansion was similar. He adds that while Florida offers incentives to business, it’s very attractive to employees, as well. There is no income tax, the cost of living is low, and the real estate market is an inconceivable value for folks used to West Coast or Northeast prices. “Of, course there’s a geographical advantage too; we don’t have four months of gray skies, cold, and snow.”
Independence And Scientific Capitalism
Independence is key. The tenants are not a division of governmental agencies or universities. “The mission of universities is to train,” says Houghten. “Our mission is to do research and come up with new discoveries.” At universities time is split among teaching, publishing, boards, and panels. Universities offer security. Research can become secondary. In a private institute, Houghten says, there is no time to lose focus. Things have to get done.
Houghten says the advantage, and the risk, of their independence is “scientific capitalism.” He says every day is like standing on the edge trying to find a way to cross the abyss to another success. It’s an atmosphere that forces efficiency and ingenuity. Survival depends on nonlinear thinking, long hours, and hard work. “So we can’t do things in the traditional way,” Houghten says. “If we did, we would fail because, individually, we don’t have the resources.”
Favata says one of the differences is leadership’s commitment to accelerating business. TCI is a private operation, so red tape is limited. Likewise, local Port St. Lucie governmental agencies accelerate the process for development. It’s not that there are shortcuts; it’s that decisions are expedited, and there aren’t 1,000 rules when 100 will do.
Mark Robitaille, president and CEO of Martin Memorial Health Systems, agrees. He says it’s about results, not process. “There’s no need to wait for quarterly committee meetings. One could wait four or five months for a decision from committees that actually only spend a matter of an hour on a topic.” Robitaille says, “We can pull those committees together rapidly and walk information around the system.
“At MMHS, staff can pull everything together, do the contracting, and get a study under way in matter of weeks, not months or years.” Robitaille says, “When the flu was here a couple years ago, VGTI wanted us to do a trial with one of their vaccines. Time was critical, and we were able to put the study together in a matter of a few weeks.” Robitaille says MMHS physicians are engaged and savvy with research and actively recruit patients, so the study was done quickly.
All the partners agree that one of TCI’s strongest assets is the collaborative nature of the entities. Tenants meet monthly under the umbrella of Florida Innovation Partners, LLC to discuss their individual and collective operations and plans. It’s the venue where the partners explain what they are working on, what help they need, or provide to others.
Nelson points out that collaboration maximizes resources and prevents duplication of efforts. VGTI can go to Torrey Pines and search its library of more than three trillion compounds. Mann collaborates with Martin to build a center for research attached to the future home for Mann. VGTI and MMHS coordinate clinical trials.
Partners also monitor operations at the center and propose plans for future growth. Discussions focus on the physical plant, as well as marketing and recruiting. A continuing theme is what or who’s next to recruit to TCI. They look for complementary or value-added entities to flush out the project. With a nucleus of a hospital, a research firm, and a medical devices company, the question is — what’s next. Pharma is logical. All agree on the necessity to attract pharma to bring their discoveries to market, says Nelson. Robitaille adds that it’s a perfect fit for a small high-tech boutique pharmaceutical company because many of those discoveries may be in niche markets with specialized expertise. Pelton says TCI would be an opportune situation for CROs or private for-profit companies in IT.
Externally, Pelton says that since Port St. Lucie had no established resources, and that the vision for TCI included neither university nor government affiliation, it was clear that the community and tenants had to collaborate. The community and TCI share representation on each others’ boards and contribute to mutual objectives for growth and success. Pelton says, “At this point, it’s not so much our telling TCI what we can do. Now that they have a team, they usually come to us and tell us what would make the project more successful. Then we work together to make it happen.”
That requires the ability to compete for funding and intellectual capital in hard times. Many doubt the ability to attract talent to what some have considered a backwater of technology. Nelson says what impressed him about Florida’s vision was the wisdom in courting the best institutes in the world. He admits, “I would not be here if it weren’t for Richard Houghten, who probably wouldn’t be here except for Lerner.” And Nelson was able to draw Rafick Sekaly, Ph.D., scientific director for VGTI Florida, one of the world’s leading HIV investigators, from Canada. He says the local government has impressive plans for the future and the energy to enact them. Robitaille says it simply, “You have to come here to believe it.”
What may be most impressive about TCI and the Florida project in general is its speed. In less than 10 years a small coastal community remodeled its plans and developed a community to nurture a tech center. Through a business-friendly collaborative process, TCI has progressed along a coherent path of complementary research entities. Progress now focuses on recruiting private companies to bring that research to market.