Max Planck Florida Institute: Finely Focused
The arrival of Hell and his company highlights the role Max Planck Florida plays in global science and Florida. The Florida location is the first and only offshoot of the 83-institute Max Planck Society outside Europe, birthed in 2009 thanks to $94 million in state dollars and another $94 million in local support from Palm Beach County, the town of Jupiter and Boca Raton-based Florida Atlantic University. The local support funded a custom 100,000-sq.-ft. facility on FAU’s Jupiter campus.
The state recruited Max Planck near the end of Florida’s incentive-laden campaign to build a life-science industry here, a binge that began in 2003 with the $510 million that state and local governments put out to create Scripps Florida in Jupiter. That was followed by hundreds of millions more on other life-science ventures, most of which haven’t prospered. One, VGTI in Port St. Lucie, failed, and others have struggled, including Sanford Burnham Prebys in Orlando, which wants to leave.
Max Planck Florida appears to be on firmer financial ground than some of its recruited peers. By 2015, the institute said it had grown to 144 employees, who made an average of $66,806 (its promise to the state for the incentives was to pay at least $64,770 on average). It’s overseen by a powerhouse board of top executives from its German parent, high-profile local entrepreneurs and philanthropists George Elmore and Alex Dreyfoos, former FBI Director Louis J. Freeh and multimillionaires and former CEOs of GlaxoSmithKline, Pace Communications, General Dynamics and Wyeth. The non-profit Max Planck Florida managed a $55,511 gain after expenses on $25.4 million in revenue in 2015, according to its tax filing for that year.
Florida, however, expects more than mere survival from its life-science investment. And so far no spinoff companies — let alone firms employing large numbers — have come out of Max Planck Florida.
Fitzpatrick says that while spinoffs haven’t materialized, the promised science has. Each Max Planck institute has its own specialty. In Jupiter, that specialty is using and developing new imaging technology to study the brain at its most foundational, trying to understand how it works in order to understand why it sometimes doesn’t.
In the last two years, the top-flight scientists that Max Planck has recruited to Florida have had 40 research papers published, including 25 in prestigious publications such as Nature, Science and Cell.
“This is science of the highest quality,” says Fitzpatrick, who arrived in 2011 from Duke University’s med school, where he was the James B. Duke professor of neurobiology and director of the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences. “I remember telling people ‘just give us five years and you’ll see what we will be able to produce.’ And, of course, at the time I didn’t really know what we would be able to produce, but we’ve done exceedingly well.” As an endorsement of its success, the parent society now provides financial support for the Florida institute.
In 2015, the institute’s other scientific director, Ryohei Yasuda, won a five-year, $4.8-million Pioneer award from the National Institutes of Health to fund research on the brain to gain insights into dementia, autism and other disorders. Only 13 Pioneer awards are given nationally to recognize groundbreaking approaches. (Next door at Scripps Florida, scientist Matthew Disney also won a Pioneer award in 2015.)
In his lab earlier this year, Yasuda demonstrated how he works, standing in a darkened room filled by a baby grand piano-sized array of lasers and devices aligned to let him observe how neurons’ dendritic spines function to exchange signals. “To look at a tiny thing, we need a big setup,” he says.
Hell’s Abberior microscope, conversely, is more compact — roughly the footprint of an upright piano. One system, says U.S. CEO Christian Wurm, can be transported in a suitcase. Abberior microscopes generally start at $200,000. A piano-size version with additional features can cost up to $1 million. That’s expensive but “not outrageously more expensive” than existing tech, Hell says. He estimates there are 20,000 to 30,000 last-generation microscopes in use in U.S. university research and pharma companies, about 30% of the world market, that could be retrofitted with Abberior’s compact system.