Another Biotech firm to Boca?
Another Biotech firm to Boca?
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Talks on biotech firm facing quick deadline
Institute wants financing to set up in Boca
By Josh Hafenbrack
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Posted August 16 2006
It's a familiar scenario: Palm Beach County on Tuesday launched frenzied, down-to-the-wire contract negotiations to make a California institute part of an ambitious biotech research zone.
This time, the Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Studies wants $21 million to set up shop in Boca Raton as part of an overall $64 million, 189-job deal.
Despite airing strong misgivings, sometimes testily, about the project, county commissioners agreed to weeklong contract talks to try to come to terms – something that proved contentious with The Scripps Research Institute just a few months ago.
Also Tuesday, commissioners strongly supported giving $9 million to a joint effort by Scripps and IBM to build the world's fastest supercomputer, also in Boca Raton, to find vaccines for bird flu. That center, employing 42 people, primarily would be fueled by $526 million in federal grants.
For supporters of the Torrey Pines project, there's a bright side in the time crunch: If acceptable contract terms are ironed out, there appears to be at least a four-vote commission majority to approve the deal.
County Administrator Bob Weisman said the county would apply lessons gleaned from the Scripps saga, during which commissioners spent months agonizing over job requirements and legal liability in the contract. It almost prompted Scripps to flee the county, but the two sides came to terms on a Jupiter campus at a last-ditch meeting in May.
"We have an understanding of what you can actually tie down and what you have to go on good faith," Weisman said.
With Torrey Pines, potential stumbling blocks are county royalties on future discoveries and job creation guarantees.
Institute founder and CEO Richard Houghten said he's optimistic a deal can be worked out.
"Agreements come about very quickly if both sides are adult about it," said Houghten, a former Scripps scientist who formed Torrey Pines 18 years ago.
Gov. Jeb Bush's administration mandated the tight deadline. The state would pay $32 million to put Torrey Pines in Boca Raton, but if the count doesn't come through with funding, other communities including Port St. Lucie have made competing offers, officials said.
Torrey Pines must commit to a site by September to keep the state funding, local officials said.
Boca Raton would give Torrey Pines 10 acres to house its 100,000-square-foot headquarters, as well as space for interim labs during construction.
Commissioners complained about the deal Tuesday on several fronts, saying they were being rushed into making a decision and that the institute is too small to ask for so much public money.
Commissioner Burt Aaronson lectured Business Development Board officials for bringing the project before the commission without a proposed contract in hand and with only days to make a decision.
"I'm really tired of having to make a decision on $21 million of taxpayer money and given three days or a couple of hours to make a decision," he said.
In the future, Aaronson suggested, the county should ask voters whether they want to set up a $200 million bond issue to use for biotech companies. "If you do it on a piecemeal basis, where does it stop?" he asked.
Nevertheless, Aaronson said he could support the Torrey Pines project if he saw a contract cementing the terms of the deal.
Commissioner Warren Newell noted that Torrey Pines has only about 80 employees in San Diego. He said that while Scripps was sold as a "huge conglomerate," anchoring a vast biotech campus, Torrey Pines is "a small company. A very small nonprofit."
In support, Commissioners Karen Marcus and Jeff Koons, as well as a host of public speakers, said it's a good deal for taxpayers and critical to the county's biotech cluster.
"We are here today presenting the biggest opportunity since Scripps," said Business Development Board President Kelly Smallridge.
Boca Raton Mayor Steven Abrams said the stakes are high. If Torrey Pines goes north to Port St. Lucie, where the Burnham Institute for Medical Research is also looking to base a taxpayer-funded campus, the state's biotech center will shift away from Palm Beach County, he said.
Josh Hafenbrack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 561-228-5508.