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Biotech Niche in Gainesville /Alachua Area

Sue Washer
John Waters of Pasteuria Bioscience, a Sid Martin Biotechnology Incubator company, tends to plants. Pasteuria is commercializing new biological nematicides that kill harmful nematodes. [Photo: Debra Neill-Mareci]

Twelve miles north of Gainesville, the small town of Alachua is known for rolling fields dotted with haystacks in the fall and wildflowers in the spring. Also growing well here are biotechnology companies.

The University of Florida planted the seeds in 1995, when it opened the Sid Martin Biotechnology Incubator. Since then, 30 of the 40 biotech spinoffs hosted by the incubator have succeeded, including RTI Biologics, now a 1,100-employee public company; Verenium, a cellulosic ethanol firm that is selling its biofuels business to BP Biofuels North America for $98 million; and Novamin, an oral healthcare company acquired last year by GlaxoSmithKline for $135 million.

The Gainesville/Alachua area ranks third in the state, after southeast Florida and Tampa Bay, for biotechnology firms, says Michael Schmidt, editor of Florida BioDatabase, which tracks the state’s biomedical companies and investments. But he says Alachua’s incubator is unmatched in its high degree of specialization and its concentration of biotech startups. "Other incubators in the state have biotech going on, but Alachua is the only one devoted to biotech alone," he says. "That makes it very unique."

The specialization means small companies such as Applied Food Technologies, which makes sure your grouper sandwich is really grouper, have access to more than $1 million in shared scientific equipment, such as ultra-low-temperature freezers, fluorescent microscopes and climate-controlled greenhouses.

UF’s decision to start Innovation Hub, a "super incubator" that’s walking distance from both campus and downtown Gainesville, raised some worries about the older incubator. But the hub has a broader mission than biotech, and Schmidt and others say Alachua’s industry has enough of a foothold that biotech startups will continue to gravitate there.

The Sid Martin incubator is part of Alachua’s Progress Corporate Park, and many of its success stories have remained and expanded there, such as RTI, AxoGen and Nanotherapeutics. Their workforce demands have drawn innovative biotech training to the small town. Santa Fe High School launched its Institute for Biotechnology last year. Santa Fe College opened its Perry Center for Emerging Technologies across U.S. 441 from the park.

Gerry Shaw
Gerry Shaw’s EnCor Biotechnology moved out of the Sid Martin Biotechnology Incubator in 2006. [Photo: Debra Neill-Mareci]