2004.11.01 Palm Beach Post Press Release
BRINGING FLA. INTO BIOTECH BIG LEAGUES
by STEPHEN POUNDS Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
Scripps Florida isn't the only lightning rod for biotechnology in Florida.
Meet Diana Robinson. Blond, slender, impeccably dressed in her signature navy blue suit with long jacket and stand-up collar, and crisp white blouse. The president of BioFlorida, the state's trade organization for life-science companies, is trying to lead Florida to the biotech big leagues with Scripps as the marquee player.
"She, in many ways, is the face of the organization. . . . What BioFlorida needs to be is the point where research universities, biotech companies and investors come together," said Tom McLain, chairman of Nabi Biopharmaceuticals in Boca Raton and Robinson's boss as BioFlorida chairman. "She has a huge role."
Last year, after Gov. Jeb Bush made a splash at BioFlorida's annual conference in Orlando, announcing he had landed a research branch of the acclaimed Scripps Research Institute for Palm Beach County, the organization decided it needed a full-time pitchman ( . . . or woman) to capitalize on Scripps. The lab would lure biotech investment and high-wage jobs to the state, the governor said.
Before the governor's announcement, BioFlorida was more of a niche group than a major force. It was formed in 1996 by a small group of biotech entrepreneurs who met at a Tampa restaurant. Its first conference a year later drew only 50 people.
"I remember we had a seminar on how to get grant money and only three people showed up. It was embarrassing. It was a half-day affair," said Clare Thuning-Roberson, vice president of Sunol Molecular Corp. in Miramar.
Robinson's biggest test came last month. After hurricanes interrupted business in every section of the state, she feverishly organized BioFlorida's seventh annual conference. It was held this year at the Marriott Hotel in Boca Raton.
She put together five seminar tracks, including one highlighting Florida's well-known marine biotech community. She snagged a Nobel laureate as a speaker, added more provocative topics such as the ethics of stem-cell research, scheduled biotech researchers to present their studies on a patio outside the hotel and ended the conference with a drop-in by the governor.
Attendance more than doubled with 422 registrations, and 75 people walked in the first day and dropped the $100 to $2,000 for a BioFlorida membership and $75 to $300 in conference fees to attend. Many seminars were packed.
"Nobody anticipated that," Robinson said. "It was a good problem to have."
In the coming year, she said she will focus on keeping biotech interests on the minds of state legislators, venture capitalists and Big Pharma with lectures, seminars and personal meetings. She will represent BioFlorida at the Southeastern Bio Investor Forum next Monday at the Doral Golf Resort & Spa in Miami. It's the largest regional conference where biotech companies can hook up with investors.
Priming the pump
Three years ago, BioFlorida began lobbying Bush to use pension funds for venture capital, a move the state made this year when it began to dole out $350 million to three money-management firms. Though that money has yet to filter down to Florida venture firms and the state's young biotech companies, it was a big step.
"The governor is putting a $350 million stake in the ground," said John Fraser, Florida State University's director of technology transfer, "and that's going to draw venture capitalists."
With so much emphasis on venture capital, BioFlorida's search for a full-time president veered away from science and toward money. Robinson's name was submitted by Sue Washer, a biotech executive in Alachua - near the University of Florida at Gainesville - to the search committee led by David Gury, the former Nabi chairman. Washer had learned of Robinson from venture people.
"Somebody knew Diana's husband was from Florida, and because of Diana's venture capital background it triggered something with Sue," Gury said.
Moreover, science isn't foreign to Robinson. Her resume starts with a bachelor's degree in economics from UCLA and an MBA in international business from the University of San Francisco.
She did a stint at an underwater robotics firm and was a doctoral dropout from the California School for Professional Psychology. Her major was psychoneuroimmunology, the study of psychological factors that cause neurochemical changes affecting the immune system.
When Gury cold-called her about running BioFlorida, she was vice president of marketing at VentureOne, a Dow Jones Newswires business in San Francisco that tracks venture capital for the industry and for private investors. There she handled public relations, events, publications and database development. She wasn't looking for a job but chatted with friends at venture capital firms to find out more about the biotech landscape in Florida and other states.
"I was mainly interested in why some thrived and why some didn't," Robinson said.
Biotech requires big money
If money makes the biotech world go around - and several rounds of multimillion-dollar investing are needed for most biotech start- ups to succeed - Robinson's venture-capital connections looked attractive to BioFlorida's search team. The state's biotech start- ups were largely ignored in the past, and any chance at success would require financial networking.
"You've heard of location, location, location in real estate. In this situation, it's repeat, repeat, repeat. You must continually get in front of people with money who can contribute to this industry," said Mel Rothberg, chairman of the South Florida BioScience Consortium.
BioFlorida was based wherever its part-time president lived, so Robinson's first big move was to move the trade group. After taking over in March, she relocated BioFlorida from Alachua to West Palm Beach, taking over a spare office at a law firm in the downtown Esperante building.
The center of the state's biotech universe moved from North Florida - and the University of Florida - to West Palm Beach. With Scripps nearby, West Palm could draw venture-capital firms, biotech companies and Big Pharma as new drug research rolled off the assembly line at Scripps.
Robinson has moved quickly to take advantage of the Scripps buzz to boost the group's membership.
"I was looking at an old list, and we had 135 members. Now we have more than 200," said John Rogers, BioFlorida's former chairman and president of EcoArray Inc. in Alachua.
Keeping all factions happy
Besides doing her part to put Florida on the map as a biotech center, Robinson also is faced with keeping the various interest groups within BioFlorida happy.
Scripps, Nabi and others want Robinson and the organization to bring local and state public-health officials up to speed on the nature of biotechnology and the agencies in place to regulate it such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institutes of Health and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration.
"Public health generally centers around restaurants and the general public's health," said Harry Orf, vice president of operations for Scripps Florida. "But when it comes to research, they are the eyes and ears of the community. Sometimes they don't know how the laws apply."
The universities want Robinson to connect their best ideas with venture capital. Venture capitalists want to see more recruiting of biotech executives. Biotech executives want more companies to move to the state. And everybody wants Big Pharma conducting more clinical studies in Florida.
"Anybody who's in this business wants to see a strong, vibrant industry," Robinson said. "This is a nascent industry in Florida and all the elements are here."
Diana Robinson, president, BioFlorida
EDUCATION: Bachelor's degree, economics, UCLA; MBA, University of San Francisco
HIGHLIGHTS: Increased BioFlorida membership by 50 percent and organized a two-day biotechnology conference
PREVIOUS JOB: Vice president, VentureOne, a venture-capital research firm in San Francisco
* Headquarters: West Palm Beach