Sun, Sand and Drugs: How a Beach Town Became a Biotech Hub

Jun 15, 2017

The pharmaceutical industry was once an elusive market with its facilities confined to traditional powerhouse cities such as Boston and San Francisco. But today’s Pharma companies have diversified significantly as pockets of corporate offices, manufacturers and R&D facilities are being found in seemingly surprising places.

Greater Fort Lauderdale, typically known for its sandy beaches and palm trees has spent the past few years quietly assembling one of the most dynamic pharmaceutical clusters in the country.  The region currently holds 1,500 biotech institutions that employ more than 26,000 people and generate $4 billion in revenue each year.

Considered a gateway to Latin America, Broward County also has continued to expand its ties to businesses overseas. In April 2016, Ecolab Inc., announced plans to create its Latin America regional headquarters in Miramar, just south of Fort Lauderdale.

Pharmaceutical executives’ time is precious; their company’s capital even more so. When scouting out potential new locations, it is important to consider how the surrounding area will impact the businesses’ bottom line. 

Outlined below are a few reasons why Greater Fort Lauderdale has evolved past its reputation of being a magnate for retirees and spring breakers and become a hotspot for pharmaceutical research and development, manufacturing and office space.

Laying down the groundwork

Broward County has spent years building the foundation necessary for Pharma companies to do their work today while fostering growth for tomorrow. With nearly 2 million residents, Broward County has a vibrant population (median age, 40), affordable housing (median property value of $228,000 according to Zillow), access to improved air, rail and water transportation and an array of advanced educational opportunities. As of 2015, higher education in Broward accounted for more than 2,100 post-graduate degrees, certificates and doctorate designations in health and science fields alone.

When looking to establish a base, pharmaceutical companies must consider all that the surrounding area offers in terms of business amenities and transit infrastructure.

The Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport has continued to grow and expand, improving terminal amenities, reducing flight delays and increasing its number of international destinations by adding more departure gates. Two other major international airports in West Palm Beach and Miami are both less than an hour’s drive of Broward County.

Port Everglades received approval this past May to initiate its largest expansion project to date, a $437.5-million improvement effort that will add new berths for larger cargo ships and install crane rail infrastructure to accommodate new Super Post-Panamax cranes.

Broward’s port already serves as the region’s gateway to Latin America, the Caribbean, Europe and Asia, handling more than 1 million TEUs, the industry standard measurement for cargo container volumes.

Fostering a dynamic industry cluster

In March, Canadian-owned Apotex Inc., the seventh largest general pharmaceutical company in the world, announced its plan to make Miramar its U.S. headquarters, and invest $180 million to build a new research and development center and advanced manufacturing and packaging facility.

Apotex is just the latest addition to a growing pharmaceutical community ranging from freshly funded startups to global heavy weights.

Lupin Limited, a pharma-research company based in Mumbai, India, has initiated an expansion project in Coral Springs that will open a new laboratory by the end of 2017. When the expansion was announced, a senior executive with Lupin said the ability to recruit top scientists in South Florida was a determining factor in choosing to operate out of Broward County.

Vigilant Biosciences, a developer of products for early detection of oral cancer, was founded in Fort Lauderdale in 2012 and has since raised more than $17 million in financing.

And that’s not counting the established industry leaders that already call the area home such as Aveva Drug Delivery Systems in Hollywood, Goodwin Biotechnology Inc. in Plantation, SHL Pharma in Deerfield Beach and Allergan, which manufacturers 2.2-billion units each year at its warehousing facility in Davie.

Operating within close proximity of like-minded organizations is an important catalyst for growth among pharma companies as they benefit from the value chain that exists within a cluster (i.e. suppliers, manufacturers, distributors, academic institutions, researchers, and workforce training, as well as those who provide relevant support services).

Producing the next generation of STEM talent

With more than 35 colleges and universities in the region, South Florida provides a pipeline for pharmaceutical employers to scout the next generation of scientists, technicians and researchers.

The region’s growth means no shortage of plum positions with employment statistics showing that through the year 2022, life science jobs are expected to increase by 16 percent with more than 1,100 new jobs available. Nearly 30 percent of those positions are expected to be filled by biological, chemical and forensic science technicians.

In Broward County, schools such as Nova Southeastern University have initiated hundreds of research projects. NSU’s Center for Collaborative Research and its Technology Incubator are providing research facilities with the tools and financial resources to further development in areas such as immunotherapies and regenerative medicines.

Another institution, Florida Atlantic University, in late 2016 entered into a licensing agreement with Neuro Pharmalogics Inc., a private biopharmaceutical company, to develop and patent advancements in the treatment of neurological diseases.

In addition, biopharma companies have found an array of research grant and funding avenues. In 2010, nearly two-dozen colleges, universities and research institutes banded together to form Life Sciences South Florida to provide state, federal and private investment opportunities. 

That effort, coupled with BioFlorida, which represents nearly 5,500 companies and research organizations, including biotechnology, pharmaceuticals, medical devices and diagnostics, and the Florida Institute for the Commercialization of Public Research, which helps create new ventures developed at the state’s publicly-funded research institutions, has positioned South Florida to maintain its standing as a leader advancing innovative products that improve lives and provide enhanced economic benefits to the state.

Greater Fort Lauderdale represents a new frontier for the pharmaceutical industry that will only continue to grow for the foreseeable future. Now is the time for drug companies to decide whether they want to be part of that growth and more importantly, position themselves in a market that is ripe for funding.

Bob Swindell is President and CEO of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Alliance, Broward County's official public/private economic development partnership.

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