The Max Planck Florida Institute to break ground on new labs

By Jeff Ostrowskirel=”nofollow”>

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Updated: 6:32 p.m. Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Posted: 4:54 p.m. Monday, June 21, 2010

Palm Beach County’s nascent biotech industry takes another step toward maturity today when a prestigious German research institute breaks ground on its new labs.

The Max Planck Florida Institute will build a 100,000-square-foot center on the Jupiter campus of Florida Atlantic University. The modern building, scheduled for completion in 2012, will be dominated by a towering glass atrium that rises as high as 60 feet.

Max Planck’s labs along Donald Ross Road will be built only a few dozen steps from Scripps Florida’s 350,000-square-foot research center.

“That’s quite a one-two punch, to have Scripps and Max Planck right across the street from each other,” said Sherry Snyder, head of West

Palm Beach biotech firm Xcovery.

Max Planck is conducting research from its temporary home at FAU in Jupiter, where the institute employs 31 people, including Bert Sakmann, winner of the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1991.

Biotech entrepreneurs such as Ray Johnson are still pinching themselves at Jupiter’s emergence as a biotech hub.

“If you had said a few years ago that we’re going to get two of the best research institutes in the world to come to little old Jupiter, people would have said, ‘Fat chance,’?” said Johnson, head of Jupiter biotech firm Cytonics.

Max Planck and Scripps came here only after hefty investments by taxpayers. Max Planck will receive $188 million in state and county money, for which it has promised to hire 135 employees. Scripps agreed to hire 545 people in exchange for $579 million in state and local money.

Florida is far from the only place spending big money to lure scientists. Dozens of states and nations are pursuing the biotech industry.

“Of all the places Max Planck could choose in this country to open their first operation, it speaks volumes that they chose Palm Beach County,” said Russell Allen, president of BioFlorida, a trade group based in West Palm Beach. “It was a real coup for Florida.”

State and county leaders hope the big bet on biotech spurs the growth of a knowledge-based economy. They’re banking on Max Planck and Scripps to generate a steady stream of life-improving drugs that will be developed by private companies that emerge from the two nonprofit institutes.

The ultimate goal: Create thousands of high-­paying jobs. The average pay for Florida biotech jobs is $55,264, well above the typical private-sector pay of $39,596, according to a recent study by research firm Battelle.

With so much money at stake, there’s skepticism that the bet is a wise one. A study released early this year by the Florida Legislature’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability looked at investments of state and county money in eight research institutes, including Scripps and Max Planck, and found the payoff remains elusive.

“This investment has not yet resulted in the growth of technology clusters in the counties where program grantees have established facilities,” the report said.

Lake Worth investment adviser Daniel Brooks questions the wisdom of giving Max Planck and Scripps more than $1 million for each job they’re required to create.

“I think it’s a terrible use of taxpayer money,” Brooks said. “The cost versus the benefit just doesn’t make sense, especially when the economy’s in the crapper and everybody’s raising taxes.”

Biotech boosters urge patience.

“We will start seeing more commercial activity,” Allen said. “Unfortunately, there’s no overnight success in our industry.”

Max Planck’s arrival was smooth and controversy-free, particularly compared with the contentious battle over Scripps’ new home. The Scripps Research Institute in 2003 decided to build its labs on Mecca Farms, an orange grove in northwestern Palm Beach County, but environmental concerns led Scripps to build on FAU’s campus.

Based in Munich, the nonprofit Max Planck Society has 20,000 employees and an annual budget of $1.8 billion. While its research spans the life sciences and social sciences, Max Planck’s work here focuses on neuroscience and “bioimaging” techniques that let scientists see the interactions of microscopic molecules.

Max Planck Vice President Claudia Hillinger said the institute decided to move here in part to work with Scripps scientists. Its new labs are designed to encourage collaboration, said Margie DeBolt, a partner at Zimmer Gunsul Frasca Architects. She envisions scientists taking a break in the atrium and chatting with their colleagues.

“Researchers are always trying to find ways to collaborate,” DeBolt said. “The interaction is really key to making the research more potent.”

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