Jeb Bush's unfulfilled promise shows the perils of building blockbuster biotech clusters

Jeb Bush

In 2003, Jeb Bush set out to build a biotech cluster from scratch. Bush looked at the ecosystem that surrounds the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego, decided he wanted an equivalent in Florida and began throwing money at the problem. Scripps came but the predicted surge in jobs never followed. And with Bush running for president on a platform of fiscal responsibility, that could be a problem.

The Los Angeles Times is the latest publication to dig into Florida's stuttering biotech dream. When it came to persuading state and county officials to pony up more than $500 million to lure Scripps to Florida, Bush talked up the potential to turbocharge the creation of a biotech cluster that could add more than 40,000 jobs within 15 years of getting started. Some at the time were sceptical--Nature ran a piece with "big-money flop" in the headline--but Bush was willing to double down on the bet, initiating the creation of a $1 billion VC fund the year after attracting Scripps to the state.

Six years after Scripps opened its Florida site, the "big-money flop" camp is looking more prescient than Bush. Some figures have improved. The number of biotech establishments has doubled and Scripps has pulled in $425 million in federal grants and donations. But the jobs, the centerpiece of any big state-led economic program, have failed to materialize. The biotech headcount in Florida has increased by 952 since 2007, a rise of 3.5%. Scripps employs 646 people in Florida, suggesting that the ecosystem of startups Bush wanted to nurture is yet to make an impact on the job market.

In the longer term, Bush may be vindicated. The doubling of the number of biotech establishments suggests something is stirring in Florida but the state is still a long way from being mentioned in the same breath as California or Massachusetts. "It's going to take time. The seeds have been planted," J. Antonio Villamil, Bush's economic consultant on the scheme, said. Villamil says a cluster was never guaranteed but in 2003 he called Scripps "a magnet to attract biotech-pharmaceutical companies." That magnet has, to date, proven insufficient to create a cluster.

The story of Bush's attempt to build a cluster is pertinent today given the establishment of biotech ecosystems and the high-paying jobs they create remains a dream for many governments. Officials in Norway, the United Kingdom and multiple parts of the U.S. are trying to build their own clusters. But it takes more than money and a big-name academic anchor tenant to create what California and Massachusetts have spent decades building.

- read the LA Times' feature