Area celebrates 10 years of biotechnology advances

Kristine Crane | The Gainesville Sun

ALACHUA — Imagine a future where every time you take your medications, your body sends a message to your doctor.

And your doctor also would know when you don't take them.

This medical message in a bottle would come in an ibuprofen-sized capsule lined with wiring that would send a signal to your doctor that starts after you swallow the medication and it hits your gastric juices.

Inventions like this one — from Newberry-based company "etect" — are being developed, as the saying goes, right in our backyard.

But if you live in Gainesville, you're entitled to that cliche. Thirty biotechnology companies housed at RTI Biologics in Progress Corporate Park in Alachua are giving the area an internationally recognized reputation in biotechnology, and Thursday marked a 10-year anniversary celebration of these developments.

"The event began in our back patio 10 years ago," said Patti Breedlove, the associate director of the Sid Martin Biotechnology Incubator.

Gradually, the event has expanded to include booths with more than 70 spin-off companies and outside vendors. It's free and open to the public, and primarily a networking event, Breedlove said.

"It puts the spotlight on our growth in the biotechnology sector," she said.

Biotechnology is the use of living organisms such as bacteria or enzymes for drugs and other applications. Those applications, as evidenced by the companies featured Thursday, span gene therapy to tissue repair and cancer therapy.

Eleven percent of the country's biotech companies are based in Florida, and many of those are in this area.

Chantelle Gomez, a senior research associate with Applied Genetic Technologies Corp., explained on Thursday that the company is working on gene therapy for eye conditions that cause blindness. Scientists there have figured out a way to reverse these conditions by delivering healthy copies of the faulty genes to the ocular cells.

Unlike other therapies, with gene therapy, "It's a one-time dose and you are cured," Gomez said. She added that trials with the therapy have produced positive results, which bodes well for eventual FDA approval.

"We are at the very edge of getting approval," Gomez said. The company was highlighted on Thursday for receiving $37.5 million in venture capital investments.

Gomez said that working on such cutting-edge and transformative therapies is inspiring and makes the "hum-drumness" of lab work worthwhile.

"When you step back, these people who couldn't see before now can see, and we're not slapping them with a $200,000-a-year therapy," she said.

Breedlove added: "This is not just academic research. It gets to the market. So it's a win for Gainesville, a win for Alachua, and really even a win for Florida."

Those "wins" have reached national and international scale recently. Spinoff company Nanotherapeutics, based in Alachua, won a Department of Defense contract worth more than $200 million in March, and shortly thereafter, the University of Florida's Sid Martin Biotech Incubator was named 2013 international Incubator of the Year by the National Business Incubation Association.

The DOD contract is expected to provide 150 new jobs with an average salary of $90,000.

Other highlights presented Thursday include $20.8 million in financing for AxoGen and Syngenta's acquisition of Pasteuria Bioscience for $113 million.

Nancy Bryan, the new CEO and president of BioFlorida, the bioscience industry association representing the companies, which also sponsored Thursday's event, said, "My goal is that by the 20th anniversary, Florida will not only be known for its sun, beaches and oranges but its vibrant life sciences community."

 

Virginia MacKoul

Virginia is a graduate from the University of Florida's College of Design Construction and Planning with a degree in Sustainability and the Built Environment, and a minor in Urban Regional Planning. Virginia joined the Front Street team in 2011, as an intern. Upon graduation, Virginia joined the Front Street team full-time as the Director of Client Services. Ms. MacKoul’s addition furthers Front Street’s continued growth and expansion within Gainesville and other North Central Florida markets. She was promoted to Director of Marketing in 2014 and now manages the firm’s team of interns and oversees all marketing and branding activity. Virginia was born in Boston and moved to Lee County, Florida in 1997. Virginia graduated her high school's International Baccalaureate program and started at the University of Florida with a focus on Architecture. Virginia shares Front Street's passion of giving back to the community and those in need. Virginia's hobbies include photography, cooking, football, movies, music, and spending time with her dog, Brinkley.

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