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Escambia County is a hotbed for employment in health care, tourism, military, education and cybersecurity. Is biotech on the cusp of joining that exclusive group?

By Tom St. Myer INWeekly

ActiGraph, CIRCULOGENE, Intelligent Retinal Imaging Systems and Pegasus Laboratories are a few of the biotech companies rapidly expanding their footprint in the county. Escambia County is a fertile recruiting pipeline with the University of West Florida and Pensacola State College producing graduates in biotech disciplines, and the lure of living in an area with ideal weather conditions and no state taxes, enticements from the FloridaWest Economic Alliance and funding from Industry Resilience and Diversification Fund awards have each contributed to the biotech surge.

“Every time we announce one of these projects or when somebody comes in and we’re able to broadcast that and talk about it and celebrate that, it gets other companies looking at us,” FloridaWest CEO Scott Luth said. “Well, hey, why did they choose there? Why are they thinking about that community? What is it about that community that makes a difference?”

He continued, “And when you put a team together like we have here in this community with the support of the city and the county and all of our funders and boards, we can really come together and support these companies coming in. And that’s really what we’re seeing happen.”

Headquartered in Pensacola for the past 37 years, Pegasus owns seniority among the area’s biotech companies. Pegasus produces animal health products and pharmaceuticals distributed under their PRN Pharmacal brand into the veterinary market. The company employs 140 people, and last month it announced plans to add 60-70 laboratory and life-science manufacturing jobs over the next five years. The average salary of the new positions is expected to be close to $70,000.

The expansion for Pegasus was made possible after partnering with Pensacola-Escambia Promotion and Development, FloridaWest and Triumph Gulf Coast to purchase the facility previously occupied by Hitachi in Ellyson Industrial Park.

“We’ve got such a strong base of people today that love it here, and we love them,” said Steve Clifford, president and CEO of PBI-Gordon Companies, Pegasus’ parent company. “They do great work here. They’ve helped us build a terrific enterprise here. They love it, so we want to grow the footprint here, and so long as we’re able to attract people to the community, then we’re going to be committed to the community.”

Pegasus began with just a few employees in a small facility. The same is true of Intelligent Retinal Imaging Systems (IRIS). Founded in 2011 by nationally renowned retina surgeon Dr. Sunil Gupta, IRIS provides health care systems with diabetic retinopathy detection software that detects preventable blindness with 95% accuracy. The software connects primary-care physicians with optometrists and ophthalmologists to read eye exam images during a doctor visit.

Gupta initially opened IRIS out of his office before the company expanded and moved to a prominent location in downtown Pensacola. IRIS interpreting providers have reviewed over 1.6 million images, saving over 110,000 patients from potential blindness. More than 500 organizations have used its software.

“Dr. Gupta is just an amazing individual, an entrepreneur in his field,” Luth said. “And for him to come in and begin to launch a company in our incubator (CoLab) with a great concept and idea of how you can do early diabetic testing through the retinal scan has been amazing.”

Funding through the Industry Resilience and Diversification Fund (IRDF) has positioned ActiGraph and CIRCULOGENE to expand their Pensacola operations and create new jobs. The IRDF award is a collaboration between FloridaWest and UWF. The Florida Legislature, the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity and UWF established the $30 million program in the aftermath of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Approximately $10 million in funding remained last year when the program reopened. The program’s goal is to encourage the creation of sustainable, high-paying jobs in diverse industries across the eight Northwest Florida counties.

IRDF funds remain viable options for companies that promise to bring high-paying jobs to a region that has bounced back successfully from natural disasters and a recession.

“We got a couple more going through the contract negotiation process with UWF,” Luth said. “Hopefully, we’ll see some more announcements come out of that soon.”

He pointed out that in 2010, Escambia County was coming out of one of the worst recessions that area ever had experienced. Then the BP oil spill struck.

“Before that, this community was still trying to recover from a hurricane, and we were looking at well over double-digit unemployment back then,” said Luth. Lewis Bear Jr. lobbied state lawmakers for funds to help diversify the economy’s counties impacted by the oil spill while the state and federal governments wrestled with BP for recovery dollars.

“Those IRDF dollars just were so instrumental in allowing us to kind of move towards recovery,” said the FloridaWest CEO. “A lot of folks kind of forget, but we’ve had a great 10-year run with very low unemployment since then. Those dollars made such a difference, and they’re still making a difference today.”

Founded in 2004, ActiGraph CEO Jeremy Wyatt said the company is changing the landscape of how clinical drug research is performed with digital measures generated by wearable sensors. Its software, hardware and scientific services are used in hundreds of clinical drug trials around the world, and 100% of its revenue comes from outside Pensacola.

ActiGraph will occupy just over 20,000 square feet of space at the Regions Center in downtown Pensacola, and approximately 75% of its global workforce will be based at the facility. The company has over 2,000 clients in more than 110 countries.

“Our former CEO, Jeff Arnett, had a vision of keeping the business local, and I intend to continue that vision,” Wyatt said. “My home is here, and many of our employees are locals. ActiGraph has grown significantly over the past two years, hiring remote employees across 16 states and four countries. Yet, even as we grow our global presence, the spirit and unique vibe of Pensacola is fundamental to the culture we’ve established. This city has a tremendous impact on the friendly, family-like environment that’s been at our core for nearly 20 years. We’ve actually had several remote employees relocate to Pensacola after coming here for their orientation. They just love the city.”

Earlier this year, CIRCULOGENE expanded its operations into downtown Pensacola. The innovative medical technology company will be the first company to establish a molecular DNA testing laboratory dedicated to cancer diagnostics in Pensacola. The company will receive patient samples from around the world to test for genetic mutations of their cancers to create better treatment strategies for patients.

CIRCULOGENE is headquartered in Birmingham, Ala. The expansion into Pensacola is expected to create up to 70 new jobs within four years, with an average wage topping 230% of the current average.

CIRCULOGENE President and CEO Mike Mullen said an increase in oncologists sending in blood for molecular profiling prompted the expansion. Mullen considered Pensacola to be an ideal location with its proximity to Birmingham and FloridaWest aggressively assisting to make the move possible.

At the grand opening in February, Mullen told Inweekly that his team targeted Florida for its expansion and considered cities in South Florida before deciding on Pensacola. He said, “Pensacola was a city that was clear to me that the leadership is committed to growing and creating high-paying jobs.”

For Luth, CIRCULOGENE has been another example of the “leading-end technology that we’re seeing coming out of here.” He is optimistic that more companies will add to the area’s growing biotech industry.