Jennings: Universities crucial to Florida's economy
By Tom Harlan
An educated workforce is crucial to building Florida's biotech industry, state officials say.
Biotech jobs pay higher than minimum wage and require some technical schooling, but not necessarily higher education, said Florida Lt. Gov. Toni Jennings. A strong university system is critical to building Florida's diverse economy, she said during an interview last week at Miami Today.
"The state's biggest stumbling block will always be having enough people available and ready to go to work," she said. "That's why our community colleges, our universities, our technical centers and high schools need to be focused on preparing young people for the jobs that are here and that are coming."
The Scripps Research Institute announced plans last year to establish a science center in Palm Beach County that is to focus on biomedical research, technology development and drug design. Plans are being made for a research campus, projected to include many tenants, including biotech companies. Several colleges and universities are also expected to form partnerships with Scripps.
Scripps Florida began operations in a facility at Florida Atlantic University last spring and expects in 2005 to move to a temporary 40,000-square-foot laboratory building on its campus in Jupiter.
But biotech was a focus for the state before the Scripps deal, Ms. Jennings said. In 2002, Gov. Jeb Bush and the Legislature established the $30 million Technology Development Fund to create three centers of excellence at University of Florida, University of Central Florida and Florida Atlantic University.
The centers were established to develop Florida's high-tech industries and to help meet the state's education, capital and workforce needs. For example, the University of Florida's Center of Excellence in Regenerative Health Biotechnology is to undertake research that addresses the prevention, cure and rehabilitation of diseases and traumatic injuries, according to Enterprise Florida, the state's economic development agency.
After establishing the centers, Gov. Bush went to La Jolla, CA, and met with Richard Lerner, president of The Scripps Research Institute. While touring the institute, the governor decided that Florida needed a similar park to expand its economic base, Lt. Gov. Jennings said.
State officials went to La Jolla to study the area, and discuss what incentives Scripps Research Institute would need to open another operation in Florida.
Ms. Jennings said they named the effort to bring Scripps to Florida the air conditioning project, because they truly thought biotech would do for Florida for the next generation or two what the evolvement of air conditioning did for the development of Florida.
"Think about what Florida would have been like had air conditioning never been invented," she said.
After Scripps agreed to build a campus in Palm Beach County, the officials said their decision would have a "detonator effect" on Florida. The expansion is expected to spur Florida's economic development in biotech, just as Scripps in La Jolla helped build San Diego's bioscience industry.
"Scripps will be the catalyst for profit and not-for profit ventures throughout the state," the lieutenant governor said.
For example, La Jolla is surrounded by other life science companies, she said, adding that Pfizer has 1 million square feet in the city and Novartis has 500,000.
"Those types of operations feed upon having the Scripps Research Institute there," she said. "And that's really where biotech in Florida is going to be coming from."
In addition, Scripps' decision is to bring a whole new group of researchers and technicians to Florida and create stable, high-paying jobs to the area, Ms. Jennings said.
"And these jobs are less susceptible to downturns in the economy then tourism, agriculture or construction," she said. "Biotech is a prime example of Gov. Bush's focus on diversifying the economy."
Though Scripps will be headquartered in Palm Beach County, state officials see the outgrowths of this spreading throughout Florida.
South Florida, with hospitals like Jackson Memorial and universities like the University of Miami, is a prime location for biotech, Ms. Jennings said. A top-notch infrastructure and quality academic programs are key ingredients to a diversified economy, she said.
"Scripps will help expand our economic base in Florida," she said. "But the best economic development tool you can have is an educated workforce."