Exclusive: UF signs deal to take over Scripps Florida

University of Florida to pay $100 for all of Scripps Florida’s assets, including its three Jupiter buildings and 70 vacant acres in Alton.

Scripps Florida

First of two parts

Fifteen years ago, the state put up $310 million and Palm Beach County put up $269 million to bring The Scripps Research Institute to Abacoa. 

Last month, Scripps agreed to hand it all over to the University of Florida for $100.

Without saying why, the La Jolla, Calif.-based nonprofit agreed to give UF the three main science buildings built with Palm Beach County money, the state-of-the-art robotics and the vacant 70 acres in Alton set aside for biotech development, a Nov. 15 Asset Transfer Agreement shows. 

UF provided the agreement to OnGardens.org in response to a public records request. 

Also, the agreement says Scripps will give UF $102 million in cash on hand, most of it apparently committed to ongoing projects, minus $3 million for transition costs.

Scripps will allow UF to use its name and transfer its top researchers and 500 employees to UF Health, the university’s academic health center, which will offer them the same pay and benefits. Tenured Scripps researchers will be offered tenure at the Gainesville-based university.

And Scripps will renounce its claim to potentially the most valuable asset of all — the  intellectual property that could result in massive royalties from any one of the hundreds of products developed by its former scientists.

In return, UF will pay Scripps $100. 

READ THE CONTRACT BETWEEN UF AND SCRIPPS FLORIDA

The agreement, signed Nov. 15, is set to close by Jan. 18. (Editor’s note: On Jan. 18, UF said the closing would be pushed back to April 2. Second update: The deal closed April 2, UF announced in an April 4 press release.) UF first announced negotiations in a July 22 press release

“It’s an extraordinary step forward for UF and an extraordinary step forward for Scripps,” said Dr. Herbert Wertheim, a Scripps board member and UF donor who helped bring the two sides together. 

Wertheim, a billionaire optometrist and inventor whose name graces two UF colleges — medicine and engineering — pointed to other research institutions drawn to Florida during Gov. Jeb Bush’s term by massive grants only to shut down and seek new partners or leave.

He noted that in this case the relationship is not ending because Scripps researchers in California will continue to collaborate with researchers in Jupiter. But he viewed it as clear victory for UF.

“Now UF will be managing and taking full possession. It’s an expansion of the quality of what’s happening at UF,” Wertheim said. “The governor is all for this.”

Scripps referred all questions to UF.

The takeover by a school recently ranked fifth among the nation’s public universities promises to boost north county’s selling power, said Kelly Smallridge, president of the Palm Beach County Business Development Board.

“It elevates the whole life-science cluster that we’ve been promoting,” Smallridge said. “This clicks it up numerous notches. You put UF’s name in there and it certainly causes heads to turn.”

The deal offers obvious synergy as Scripps has lab fire power but no clinical settings and UF operates the UF Health Shands Hospital, a teaching hospital, where Scripps scientists can gather real-time data. 

“What UF has accomplished by doing this is they have expanded their brain power of cutting-edge science,” said Mark Emalfarb, chief executive of Dyadic International in Jupiter and an original supporter of the deal that brought Scripps to Florida. “It allows them to get more clinical trials than they otherwise would.”

See Part 2: How 70 acres in Alton ended up with the University of Florida

One of three buildings on the Scripps Florida campus at Abacoa in Jupiter. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

Faded glory for Florida biotech

The deal comes six years after Scripps named Peter Schultz president. Longtime Scripps President Richard Lerner, who negotiated in 2003 with then-Gov. Bush to expand to Florida, left the job in 2012 and died this month at the age of 83.

Schultz came to office a year after Michael Marletta stepped down after pursuing a contentious merger for Scripps with the University of Southern California. Despite declining finances due to scarce grant money, Scripps faculty fought the merger and issued a no-confidence vote in Marletta, leading to his departure.

Florida International University began leasing space four years ago at the location of another Florida biotech recruit facing similar pressures, the Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Studies in Port St. Lucie. FIU merged with Torrey Pines last year. 

Additionally, Cleveland Clinic is leasing the space of another departed recruit, the Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute of Florida, also in Port St. Lucie.

In 2018, the University of Central Florida took over the space in Orlando given to the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute, another recruit that came to Florida at Lerner’s urging after Scripps.

The Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience at Abacoa in Jupiter. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

One recruit that continues to quietly perform is the Max Planck Florida Institute for Neuroscience, drawn in 2008 by $190 million in state and local incentives to an Abacoa site next to Scripps Florida.

At the time, critics argued the institutions were taking advantage of handouts to make a Florida splash but would have difficulty building a sustainable base of venture capital support or in developing spinoff businesses away from the nation’s established research centers, such as Boston or the North Carolina Research Triangle. 

Another key missing piece identified by critics of the Palm Beach County deal: a research hospital.

Aside from the $269 million the county spent to erect the three Abacoa buildings, the county spent more than $100 million buying and starting to develop the Mecca Farms site, which in 2013 it sold to the South Florida Water Management District for for $26 million.

UF tops Scripps in NIH grants

While Scripps is a giant among private institutions in securing research grants, UF has topped it in each of the past three years, figures posted by the National Institutes of Health reveal. 

UF has averaged 477 awards worth about $197 million a year over the past three fiscal years, the data show. That puts it among the top 50 nationwide. (By contrast, Johns Hopkins University has ranked at or near the top over those three years, bringing in about $800 million a year.)

The UF figure is twice as many grants but just $4 million more than received by scientists at The Scripps Research Institute’s main campus in La Jolla, Calif. 

Scripps Florida, a smaller offshoot of La Jolla, has ranked in the 140s nationally, bringing in an average of 90 awards per year worth $45 million.

NIH grants are the lifeblood of these institutions, paying wages for top scientists and lab workers, while also paying indirect costs directly to the institution, money that now would flow to UF to maintain the three-building Abacoa campus.

While the contract doesn’t specify, the $102 million Scripps is handing to UF is likely money set aside from grants to pay overhead, such as building and lab maintenance.

© 2021 Joel Engelhardt. All rights reserved.

See Part 2: How 70 acres in Alton ended up with the University of Florida

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Author: Joel Engelhardt

Joel Engelhardt is an award-winning newspaper reporter and editor based in Palm Beach Gardens. He spent more than 40 years in the newspaper business, including 28 years at The Palm Beach Post. As a reporter, he covered countywide growth, the 2000 election and the birth of Cityplace in West Palm Beach. As an editor, he oversaw probes into the opioid scourge, private prisons, police-involved shootings and more. For seven years, he worked on the paper’s editorial board. Joel left The Post in December 2020. He and his wife, Donna, have lived together in Palm Beach Gardens since 1992.

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