Our Town: Alachua: Biotech

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By Emily Morrow

Our TownOn the stretch of U.S. Highway 441 just east of Main Street lies the future of Alachua.

Its front lawn is tic-tac-toed with hay bales, and its back windows look out on horse trails and hikers winding their way across a state park.

In the midst of this rural setting is Progress Corporate Park, home to the Sid Martin Biotechnology Incubator and 30 biotechnology companies.

“There is a biotech revolution starting here,” said Patti Breedlove, the associate director of the incubator.

This is a revolution that is not limited to the business park’s 200 acres, but rather, is incorporating the whole town. You can see it in the incubator’s hallways that are decorated with Alachua Elementary students’ artwork, in the offices where Santa Fe High School students take tours and in the labs where Santa Fe College students intern.

Launched in 1995, the 40,000 square-foot incubator, complete with offices, laboratories, greenhouses and animal housing facilities, was created to help bring successful biotechnology companies to the market.

Biotechnology is a broad term for a scientific field that uses living organisms and their derivatives, such as cells, bacteria and DNA, to produce commercial products.

“Biotech companies are the hardest companies to help to grow of any industry,” said Breedlove. “You can’t start them in your garage. You can’t start them in your dorm room like Facebook. You need very specialized facilities, equipment and program assistance.”

Companies like NovaMin – recently bought for $135 million by GlaxoSmithKline for its innovations with dental care – or Banyan Biomarkers – currently working with the Department of Defense to develop methods to diagnose brain trauma – apply to be admitted to the incubator. After acceptance, the companies have access to the incubator’s facilities and $1 million-worth of shared scientific equipment to develop their businesses.

Companies typically remain in the program for a few years before “moving out,” Breedlove said. Once companies are able to sustain themselves, they may transfer to another building within Progress Park. Others may be acquired by larger companies, and still others move out of the area.

With 30 companies in Progress Park that are bringing in more than 1,100 employees and job opportunities, these up-and-coming companies with high-wage jobs are drawing people to Alachua and stimulating more than the town’s lunchtime economy.

In 2009, Alachua saw the second highest wage increase in the country, according to a Yahoo Finance article – a trend Breedlove said can be attributed in part to the success of the local biotechnology companies and the jobs they are bringing to the area.

Though start-up companies are typically small, about 20 people each, she said this provides for a far more stable economy, with lots of little companies cropping up throughout the year.

According to preliminary data from a recent study done by the incubator, Breedlove estimated that the economic impact of the incubator’s start-up companies on the city of Alachua was a gain of about $43 million per company over a six-year period.

“It’s wonderful to be in the city of Alachua,” Breedlove said. “I think there’s a lot of local pride about the park and about what goes on here and the kinds of things the companies are doing to help people with health problems or to help our environment.”

As the success stories of these companies continue to roll in, the biotechnology hub in Alachua continues to grow.

The first effects of this growth can be seen about four miles down the street at Santa Fe High School.

Here, 14- to 18-year-olds are being introduced to the same state-of-the-art technology employed at the incubator in classes with the Institute of Biotechnology, the high school’s vocational education magnet program.

Currently in its fourth year, the 65 students are divided among three courses designed to give students insight into the developing field.

While their peers do bookwork and chemical equations in chemistry and biology classes, Santa Fe’s biotechnology students are performing DNA electrophoresis and genetically altering bacteria.

In the students’ first year in the program, they learn about lab equipment, safety and procedures. They grow plant tissue cultures and learn to analyze DNA.

In the second course, students study and test for proteins and work on genetic engineering. By the end of the school year, the students will have genetically engineered bacteria to glow.

The final course is focused on providing information about post-secondary education opportunities and job opportunities. The students research the industry to more clearly define their fields of interest and prepare to take their articulation exams for entry into Santa Fe College’s biotechnology program.

The hands-on, immersion approach to a field that is growing right before Alachua residents’ eyes has helped generate interest in the course, said June Camerlengo, the program director and instructor of all three courses.

Enrollment in the program doubled from 2009 to 2010, and she said she foresees more growth for the next school year, as SFHS will now offer busing for out-of-zone students who are enrolled in the program.

Her goal is simply to give her students insight into the biotechnology industry – a field that she has witnessed become increasingly important throughout the years.

Camerlengo is not alone in this effort. The biotechnology incubator and Santa Fe College both have contributed to the success of the high school program.

Throughout the school year, students in Camerlengo’s classes tour labs at the incubator and learn about the industry from the scientists and experts themselves. Santa Fe College professors act as advisers and mentors, providing assistance with the high school students’ science fair projects and career questions.

After graduation, some students want to follow in the footsteps of the program’s two graduates and enroll in Santa Fe College to study biotechnology. Others apply to larger universities, such as the University of Florida, to pursue different veins of scientific research. Some can even get jobs right out of high school because of their lab experience.

“We have a high school program, we have a college program, and we have a place to go to work, too,” Camerlengo said. “They can do it all right here.”

Craig Jerome, a senior in the high school’s Biotechnology 3 class, said he plans to attend Santa Fe College and get his bachelor’s degree from the biotechnology program, and then possibly work at the incubator.

“I think it’s pretty lucky for me,” he said before running off to track practice. “I don’t have to grow up in a small town that has nothing going on. Now, I have a small town, but there’s the Progress Park, and the Perry Center for Emerging technology and all the biotech stuff going on right here, so it’s easy to decide where to go.”

Directly across the street from Progress Park is the middleman in the process, Santa Fe College’s Alachua campus. This program is a newcomer as well – another product of the biotech revolution that provides workforce training for those interested in filling job opportunities the incubator brings to Alachua.

Within the Charles R. and Nancy V. Perry Center for Emerging Technologies, the Alachua campus building that opened in fall 2009, students can enroll in three biotechnology-based programs.

Biotechnology laboratory technology and biomedical engineering technology are two-year degree programs that certify students to work in entry-level lab positions, performing operations and working with scientific equipment.

The clinical laboratory science program is a four-year degree that prepares students to enter the workforce and perform lab testing on blood, bodily fluids and tissue samples.

Many graduates of the program go to work or intern across the street in Progress Park. Others go to work in emergency rooms or clinical laboratories, places that are experiencing severe workforce shortages, said Kelly Gridley, dean of the Perry Center and director of the biotechnology program.

She said she sees the Alachua SFC campus as the place where the community of Alachua and the biotechnology industry intersect.

It is through the classes, information sessions and events held at the Perry Center that the community has opportunities to learn about biotechnology and the innovation happening in Alachua. And it is by presenting at these events and meeting the community that the scientists begin to understand who they are working with and the people their products are affecting.

“My role is to help the community understand Progress Park and to help the park understand the community,” she said. “As the industry grows across the street, so we, too, will grow.”

Breedlove said the incubator doesn’t want this biotechnology revolution to completely change Alachua, but rather, to grow with the town, to continue to revitalize it and make community members proud of the innovation bubbling out of their hometown.

“We want a lot of Alachua to stay like it is,” she said. “We want the cute Main Street. We want there to be horses. We want there to be friendliness. We want there to be ranches out on the outskirts. We don’t want that to go away; and it wont.”

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