2004.08.22 Broward Sun Sentinel Press Release

Bioflorida Chief Ready To Put Her Stamp On Growth
August 22, 2004|By Glenn Singer Business Writer

Diana Robinson knows she's taking a gamble. The new president of BioFlorida moved in March from her native San Francisco -- the birthplace of biotechnology -- to a state in which major biotech development is more of a dream than reality.

But she thinks she's onto a sure bet.

"The commitment I saw in Florida, from the governor on down, was a key factor in my decision," Robinson said in a recent interview at the organization's new West Palm Beach office.

Robinson will steer BioFlorida's efforts to promote a favorable business and legislative environment for biotechnology companies in the state. The 8-year-old organization, which recently moved from the Gainesville area to be closer to the eventual Scripps Research Institute site, also encourages collaboration among businesses, universities and government agencies to encourage development of existing biotech companies and bring new ones to the state.

Known for being tenacious, analytical and able to form strong alliances, Robinson has taken the reins of BioFlorida at a critical juncture.

The new industry promoter faces two immediate challenges: keeping momentum going for the anticipated appearance of Scripps somewhere in northern Palm Beach County and convincing firms around the country -- and perhaps elsewhere in the world -- that Florida will be among the new centers of explosive biotech activity.

Robinson already has been busy, meeting industry leaders in June at the world's largest biotech convention in San Francisco and planning BioFlorida's annual meeting in October. She also has become acquainted with key county leaders with whom she hopes to form alliances.

In succeeding Paul Hassie, now chief financial officer at Oragenics Inc. in Alachua, Robinson intends to help BioFlorida publicize opportunities companies would have by relocating to the state.

"Diana has an uncanny ability to work well with a variety of personalities in business, some of them prima donnas," said Jerry Newman, senior managing director at Bear Stearns & Co. in San Francisco, who dealt with many of the same venture capitalists as Robinson. "She always shows class and patience, and is very skillful when the situation calls for a spontaneous decision."

BioFlorida board member John Rogers, who interviewed Robinson, said she was highly energetic and well spoken.

"She has a particularly strong knowledge of putting together nonprofit structures and events," said Rogers, who is president of gene chip maker EcoArray LLC of Alachua.

BioFlorida, which is financed by its members, has been growing gradually, with a recent spurt perhaps attributable to Scripps' plan to come to the state. Its ranks include biotech firms, attorneys, accountants, venture capitalists and investment bankers. While many other organizations seek to bring technology to the state, BioFlorida is "the voice of the biotech industry here," Robinson said.

`Huge' biotech interest

Before taking the job, Robinson asked several West Coast venture capitalists with whom she has worked what they thought of the offer. They told her they believed Florida was making a genuine push to become a major biotech center -- a commitment reinforced by a deal to bring an East Coast branch of The Scripps Research Institute to Palm Beach County as an anchor for an eventual cluster of technology-related firms.

"These are people who have been investing in Silicon Valley companies for 20 years," she said. "They said to me things like, `Oh, wow, Florida. That's exciting. That could work.'"
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And so Robinson headed east to oversee daily operations of Florida's biotechnology trade association.

"I've always had a huge interest in biotech," said Robinson, who recently took doctoral-level classes that explored how psychological factors cause neurochemical changes that affect the immune system. "When my friends were reading Danielle Steele, I was reading scientific journals."

She said the former chief executive of Boca Raton-based Nabi Biopharmaceuticals, David Gury, recruited her for the job. As a member of the BioFlorida board of directors, Gury had heard about Robinson's experience dealing with venture capitalists, and he learned from associates about her strong management skills. He called and asked whether she might be interested.

"To be honest, I didn't know who he was," Robinson said. "But he sounded very sincere and enthusiastic."

After she received the job offer, Robinson chatted in Tallahassee with Gov. Jeb Bush, who reiterated the state's commitment to biotech. She accepted the post in February.

Robinson moved to Palm Beach County on March 23 and started work right away. Her husband of 12 years, Greg, a chief technical officer for a structural engineering firm, will join her soon.

Getting settled in

With a diverse management background, Robinson hopes to mesh the skills she has learned working for companies in California and Europe.