Will The Region Get Past Being On The Verge Of Being On The Verge Of A Boom?
About three weeks ago, I wrote an article suggesting that the successful economic development of Northern Virginia as a global center of the IT industry could be a role model for the successful development of Florida as a major center for life science research, development and commercialization. Those thoughts were based on several weeks of looking at the market and meeting with people who have much more intimate views of the situation than I do. Since then, I have continued to meet with people who enlightened me more, I’ve read more, and I’ve attended meetings where I could hear the views of others. As a result, my initial conclusions have been altered, but only in degree. As the title of this article suggests, the situation is better than I thought, but also worse than I thought. And, I have discovered a very intriguing characteristic.
Things Are Better Than I Thought.
Look around this state. More particularly, look at South Florida (Palm Beach, St. Lucie, Broward, and Martin Counties). That is where I started my effort simply because I live there, and because the situation is so intriguing. You will discover more “green shoots” than you probably imagine exist. There are entrepreneurs, some very much on a shoestring, but some who have been developing their company for the past few years and are starting to hit more significant benchmarks. Although it is far from having the same access to early stage (and later) capital that can be found in Boston or Silicon Valley or even DC, there is an active venture community. Institutions such as Palm Beach County’s Business Development Board (BDB) are hitting stride and achieving some real successes. There is a real energy level that is hidden below the surface, out of view, not part of the South Florida community and consciousness – yet.
My first instinct was to think there was something going on here that could be a real foundation for the area’s emergence as an important center for the life sciences industry. My updated current instinct is to believe that I initially underestimated the level of activity as well as the prospects for growth.
Things Are Worse Than I Thought.
In my first article, I cited five assets that were critical to the growth of Northern Virginia, and I compared the situation that currently exists in Florida with each of those assets. Generally, the critical assets in South Florida are still immature and the certainty of their development is hardly a slam-dunk.
In addition to the immaturity of those five critical assets, I think there is the four following uniquely local issues, any one of which can thwart the opportunities of South Florida if they are not remedied.
- Cutting off your nose, chin, mouth and ears to spite your face: the Florida Atlantic University budget cuts. There is no region of major growth in the US in contemporary history where there hasn’t also been a vital, energetic, growing, research-oriented university. That’s probably true for the world. Why on earth would Florida politicians cut Florida Atlantic’s budget by $30 million and at the same time cap tuition, thereby preventing the university from even entertaining the idea of making up part of the shortfall by charging a higher tuition? The shortsightedness of the state politicians is amplified by the fact that the local business community accepted that situation lying down, asleep. No uproar. No indignation. Remarkable. The business community must come to understand the importance of FAU to the region and act accordingly. “Accordingly” doesn’t mean that they should complain and bitch and moan and think what-a-shame; it means they need to mobilize to make certain that the state provides rational financial support in the future and they also need to start writing checks – big checks – to the university to overcome the shortfall. The growth and viability of FAU is absolutely essential for the growth of the region. The business community and FAU need to be tied at the hip. They aren’t and that is a big problem.
- The over-abundance of 3-person offices. There are numerous organizations throughout the state that have been created with lofty and terrific missions and then under-capitalized and under-staffed. Usually, they are three-person offices, such as the Florida Venture Forum. Take a look at what they are doing – really great job. They are doing it with a three-person office, an executive director (which position has been vacant for the past several weeks and is likely to stay vacant for several more), a great second-in-command Pat Schneider, and one support staff, along with the significant volunteer contributions of time and effort by its members. As active as they are, does that really represent a serious commitment to the goal of increasing the access to and availability of investment capital for Florida start-ups that will create the jobs of the future? The same can be said of BioFlorida, whose mission is “to be the voice of the [bioscience] industry: To focus on creating and maintaining a favorable business and legislative environment for the industry as well as advancing the commercialization of research.” Absolutely should be done. It’s also a three-person office doing a formidable job but under-resourced relative to the need, the opportunity and the prospective ROI. These are not isolated examples. Think of the increased efficiencies if these groups worked in concert, maybe sharing office space and/or other overhead costs such as back-office support. Minimally, they should coordinate their web presence, probably by having an umbrella site that serves as a portal to the individual sites, a go-to site where people can search to find events, organizations, news, etc., all on a real-time basis. Integrate that with social networking and the prospect of real time events.
- The vital need for a simple-to-understand, easy to buy-into, aspirational vision for the area. “Recovery” and “return” are not synonyms. After some period of time, even slow improvements will lead to a recovery, but that doesn’t mean things will be just as before. The citizens, politicians and business community of South Florida are deceiving themselves if the economic development effort is based on tourism and sales of homes to people who have to sell their houses elsewhere to move here. That is not to say that tourism and snowbirds aren’t going to stay critical components of the local economy. But not enough to create a prosperous community with a high quality of life, low unemployment, great public schools, the energy of growth, the restoration of real estate values, and even the creation of new wealth. For that, there needs to be a new driver of growth. I, along with many others, think the life sciences/biotech industry could become that driver, but there needs to be a consensus and then there needs to be a campaign to make that happen. The Six Pillars program has been a necessary preliminary step in that direction. But now there needs to be branding and the creation and articulation of a vision of what is ahead, what success looks like when it is achieved, and what is required to get there. The first audience for that story has to be those who are (or could be) part of the region’s business community because if they aren’t turned on to the vision, it just isn’t going to happen. Furthermore, a handful of leaders need to step-up and say they will take an active role in making that vision come true. Right now, there is not one obvious leader, to say nothing of the dozen or two that are really needed.
- Come to grips with the reality of the geographical situation. If you were creating a market from scratch, you’d design a circle and you’d put most of the vital components in the middle. It would be easy for people to get to meetings, to feel part of the same community, and to “bump into” each other in the ordinary course of events. You sure wouldn’t design a skinny rectangle, such as the entire state of Florida or the region identified as South Florida. To deal with this reality, affinity groups that need personal contacts for relationships to flourish will have to be primarily local and regional in nature while affinity groups that prosper with the sharing of knowledge can be statewide. An example of the first type is the membership of the Palm Beach BDB, where attorneys, accountants, people from academia, entrepreneurs, etc., share concerns about the growth of the area and network on a peer-to-peer basis of living and doing business in the same region. An example of the second type of community would be scientists in the biotech industry. The first community needs to be built primarily (not exclusively) with local face-to-face events; the second needs to be built primarily (not exclusively) online.
The Remarkable Characteristic.
Virtually everyone with whom I have chatted agrees with all the above. So?