With resources that include the University of Florida in Gainesville and the UF Sid Martin Biotechnology Incubator in Alachua, the region has gained a global reputation for producing some of the country’s most innovative life sciences and biotechnology companies.
These companies are attracting private and public investments, infusing millions of dollars into the local economy and developing breakthrough and often life-changing products, from a gene-therapy cure for inherited blindness (AGTC) to solutions for safely administering anesthesia (Xhale).
AxoGen, a leader in peripheral nerve repair and regeneration, is a current resident company at the Sid Martin Incubator and one of the institution’s shining successes. AxoGen’s patented nerve graphs, nerve protectors and connectors help treat patients with injured peripheral nerves.
“AxoGen’s products have been used to repair nerves in thousands of patients, including an Afghanistan veteran who was on the verge of having his leg amputated. But, after having his sciatic nerve repaired with Avance® Nerve Graft, he’s able to live a normal life – and with both of his legs,” says Jill Schiaparelli, AxoGen senior vice President for business strategy and marketing.
AxoGen joins more than three dozen resident and graduate companies of the Sid Martin incubator, which together have attracted $1 billion in outside funding. Patti Breedlove, director of the UF Sid Martin Biotechnology Incubator, says biotech and life sciences companies have had more than $100 million annual impact on the Gainesville area economy and created close to 2,000 jobs since 2004.
“Life sciences and biotech are flourishing [in the Gainesville region] because of the University of Florida’s research in that area as well as the university’s success commercializing its research and then also because of the assistance offered by the Incubator,” Breedlove says.
Breeding Ground for Success
Established in 1990 by the Florida legislature, the incubator – named Incubator of the Year in 2013 by the National Business Incubation Association – provides resident companies with research, office and laboratory space as well as access to university facilities and resources and support, such as hazardous waste disposal, seminars, networking events and introductions to investors. This assistance has helped companies like AxoGen get up and running more quickly than they would without those resources.
Schiaparelli says what makes the Gainesville area unique is the concentration of researchers and academics and institutions dedicated to life sciences and biotechnology.
“This really has become a microcosm of biosciences, with a spirit of comradeship, networking and sharing experiences, so newer companies can benefit from the knowledge and experience of more established companies,” she says. "We really do push each other. We share and celebrate each other’s successes, and we inspire each other to push the limits of what’s possible.”
The pro-biotech atmosphere, community support and steady stream of talent are also reasons successful companies like Nanotherapeutics choose to stay and expand in the Gainesville area rather than relocate.
In 2013, Nanotherapeutics broke ground on a 165,000-square-foot advanced development and manufacturing center in Alachua. The additional space will allow the company to fulfill its Department of Defense contract to develop medical countermeasures that will protect military personnel against nuclear, radiological, chemical and biological attacks. The expansion is expected to add more than 150 jobs.
Having a major research university in its backyard has also opened up a pipeline of highly skilled talent for biotech companies.
“More and more, we’ve seen students close to graduation approach our companies for post-graduate employment and non-academic careers,” Breedlove says. “The incubator has created a significant number of clean, well-paying jobs for all education levels. These companies need researchers and scientists, but they also need receptionists.”
AxoGen has an active internship program through the University of Florida. Almost all of the interns are UF students or graduates, and a significant percentage of current employees are UF graduates. Schiaparelli says the university is usually the company’s “first stop” when recruiting.
When the company does look outside the area for talent, the region’s quality of life is a selling point and helps make AxoGen and other companies more competitive when recruiting specialized talent. Schiaparelli lists the area’s cultural opportunities, high-quality education, affordable housing and outdoor recreation opportunities as quality-of-place amenities that help attract and then retain the top talent.
Breedlove agrees. Company executives enjoy the lifestyle in North Central Florida and the benefit of having a large research institution nearby and the talent pool it creates, she says.
"They also enjoy the sense of community among those in the life sciences sector; you won’t necessarily find that in other regions of the state,” Breedlove says.