For entrepreneur Claudia Zylberberg, the biotech conference beginning Sunday in Miami could mean an expansion of hiring and lab space.
"We're doing business internationally and seeking funding for the growth of the company," said Zylberberg, chief executive of Akron Biotech, a six-year-old firm that provides raw materials and biotools to the stem cell industry.
Life science companies and the firms that want their business will gather at the annual BioFlorida conference through Tuesday. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who brought Scripps Research Institute to South Florida, is the keynote speaker. Biotech company owners and managers will interact with each other about potential collaborations and mingle with venture capitalists. Some deals may even be penned on napkins.
"Florida has the fastest-growing bioscience state in the country," said Russell Allen, president of BioFlorida, a statewide trade association based in West Palm Beach.
Allen said that's based on a report by the global research firm Battelle that shows Florida outpaced other states from 2001 to 2010 in the creation of new biotech companies. Florida has about 200 biotech companies, a 42 percent increase since 2006. The state ranks sixth in biotech employment, he said.
"Florida gained more companies than any other state. We're starting companies out of universities with two or three people," he said.
While biotech was affected by the recession, the slowdown was "nominal" compared to other industry sectors, Allen said.
South Florida attendees at the conference will be a mix of old and new biotech companies, university researchers, venture capitalists and industry suppliers. More than 20 investment firms are scheduled to attend the conference, and 12 companies will be presenting to potential investors in a "shark tank" atmosphere where they'll get feedback, Allen said.
Collaboration between companies and researchers at local universities and bioscience institutions such as Scripps Florida and Max Planck is key, said Dr. Shailesh Chavan, who directs clinical research at Boca Raton-based Biotest Pharmaceuticals, acquired by a German firm in 2007.
"It's an exciting time for biotech," Chavan said. "Smaller companies are cropping up based on technologies in universities."
But he said, "More incentives are needed to give tax breaks for adding jobs. These breaks make a big difference for companies."
Startups are getting some help from a loan program designed for early-stage companies.
Jane Teague, chief operating officer of the Florida Institute for Commercialization of Public Research, in Boca Raton, said she has 90 projects with new companies and nearly 65 percent are bioscience.
"Federal agencies are funding the research and development, and hopefully that results in products and companies," she said.
Florida's biotech industry
Size: More than 200 companies
Four regions: Southeast, including Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Boca Raton; Tampa Bay area; North Central, including Gainesville and Alachua; and Greater Orlando
Market: Two-thirds have a product being sold in the marketplace
Investment: 15 deals in 2011, up 36 percent from a year ago.
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