The mystery man behind $29 million BallenIsles buy

Maryland biotech business owner takes control of prime parcels on PGA Boulevard at BallenIsles entrance.

Ballenisles Country Club

He owns not one but two multimillion-dollar homes in north county.

He graduated from MIT at age 19.

He got his start running a life-sciences company with the help of his father, whose company later sued him. 

His company was selected to participate in Operation Warp Speed to respond to the COVID pandemic. He holds numerous patents. But his name does not even appear on his own company’s website. 

And now, property records show, he has paid nearly $30 million for vacant land outside one of the most prestigious addresses on PGA Boulevard in Palm Beach Gardens — BallenIsles.

But don’t try reaching out to Jacob Wohlstadter, 52, to find out about his plans. His local lawyer referred questions to his corporate counsel in Rockville, Md., who did not return repeated phone calls.

Almost any proposal to develop will require city approval and that means it has to pass muster with BallenIsles residents, a politically influential voting bloc in the city. But BallenIsles has heard nothing from him, Community Association President Pat Rado said.

The city, too, said it had gotten no development proposals from Wohlstadter.

Jacob Wohlstadter BallenIsles land buy
The east and west parcels straddling BallenIsles Drive south of PGA Boulevard bought recently by companies headed by Jacob Wohlstadter. (Google Maps)

No to Dr. Oz and Wackenhut

For years, the two prime vacant corners straddling BallenIsles Drive off of PGA belonged to commercial real estate developer John Bills, who was instrumental in building the 1,575-home BallenIsles community in the 1990s. 

But nothing his potential buyers proposed could win city approval. 

A proposal for Dr. Mehmet Oz to house his Foundation for the Advancement of Cardiac Therapies there was the subject of a 2006 press release, but absent zoning changes, it never happened. 

In 2009, Wackenhut eyed the site for its headquarters but, facing opposition from BallenIsles residents, built instead in Abacoa

More recently, Encompass Health pitched an 80-bed rehab facility on the west parcel, which BallenIsles opposed because of the traffic it would add to the gated community’s entry road. Rather than make changes, Encompass withdrew in October 2022. 

By then Wohlstadter had already stepped in.

He paid $10 million for the eastern 5.2 acres in August.

He closed on the final two parcels west of the entry road on May 4, paying companies controlled by Bills $18.9 million for 9 acres. 

That adds up to $28.9 million for 14.4 acres.

Wohlstadter doesn’t own them free and clear. Bills holds mortgages totaling $25.3 million, public records reveal.

While the eastern parcel is zoned to allow neighborhood-serving stores, the western parcels do not have commercial zoning at all. The biggest piece, 7.2 acres, is zoned for low-density residential.

The east parcel outside the PGA Boulevard entrance to BallenIsles in Palm Beach Gardens. (Joel Engelhardt photo)

Price amounts to $2 million an acre

Wohlstadter paid about $2 million an acre, a sum that raised eyebrows among local planners who understand how difficult it is to garner political support to build there. Most buyers insist on lining up zoning approvals before plunking down cash so there’s few similar deals to compare it to.

But still, it’s prime land on PGA Boulevard; someone able to hold it for a long time may find it a good investment, real estate broker Rebel Cook said.

“It’s one of the few remaining pieces of land in Palm Beach Gardens,” she said. “This market is not anything we’ve experienced before in South Florida. We’re now living in California.”

While his motivation for buying the properties remains unknown, the site is basically in his own backyard. 

Property records show a company Wohlstadter formed paid $5.92 million in April 2021 for a home on the golf course in Old Palm, a community across PGA Boulevard from BallenIsles. 

A year later, another Wohlstadter company paid $2 million for a waterfront home in Admirals Cove in Jupiter, where he installed a boat lift.

Who is Jacob Wohlstadter?

Jacob Wohlstadter’s father, Samuel, co-founded IGEN International in 1982, and was an early investor in Amgen, which became the world’s largest biotech company. 

IGEN developed a technology called electrochemiluminescence or ECL. It used light-emitting molecules to measure the presence of biological substances, from viruses in human blood to bacteria in undercooked meat to biowarfare agents in the desert sand, The Washington Post reported in 2004.

A Baltimore Sun account said the technology would help discover new drugs, monitor and diagnose diseases and identify bacteria or toxins in the environment.

The invention would prove exceedingly lucrative for the senior Wohlstadter.

Roche Diagnostics, the Swiss multinational healthcare company, bought a company that had licensed the rights in 1998. But it wanted more than a licensing agreement.

In 2003, Roche bought IGEN for $1.3 billion, taking control of the rights to the lucrative patent.

The elder Wohlstadter spun off what remained of IGEN into BioVeris and in 2007 Roche realized BioVeris, too, had rights to ECL. Roche agreed to pay $600 million to inherit what it thought were the remaining ECL rights.

It even issued a press release saying it had locked up the rights, ensuring it could “provide unrestricted access to all customers,” according to a 2022 federal appellate court summary of the licensing dispute.

But as that federal lawsuit would reveal, Roche did not control all of the rights.

Jacob Wohlstadter had been given the “exclusive, worldwide, royalty-free license” to the ECL technology in 1995. 

Jacob was 25 at the time and had graduated at age 19 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and gone on to grad school at Harvard University. 

Father-son joint venture

His father created a joint venture called Meso Scale Diagnostics between IGEN and a company run by Jacob. It paid Jacob an initial salary of $420,000 for 40 months, The Washington Post reported. 

IGEN provided the joint venture with a $5 million capital infusion and the licensing rights to ECL. 

Roche disputed the younger Wohlstadter’s claim to the rights and sued in Delaware District Court in 2017. A jury found for Jacob, awarding his company $137 million, the amount of profit an expert believed Roche earned on its sales over eight years. 

In an April 2022 ruling, the Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed one of the district court’s key findings, vacated the damages and sent the matter back to the district court.

In March, court documents indicate Wohlstadter’s company agreed to a settlement, although no details were publicly released.

Father’s company sues son

The father-son relationship did not seem to be particularly close in June 2004, when the father’s BioVeris sued the son over the way he spent money belonging to the joint venture. 

Under the headline “Father’s Firm Puts Son’s Spending Under Scrutiny,” The Washington Post spelled out allegations that Jacob misappropriated the joint venture’s money to put deposits on nine luxury vehicles and $1.7 million in residential property.

The New York Times weighed in with a story about Jacob using corporate money for the $630,000 down payment on a $4.2 million Time Warner Center condo in New York City and to buy real estate next door to his home in Potomac, Md. 

Wohlstadter, the newspaper reported, responded with an affidavit denying any wrongdoing and BioVeris later said it had been reimbursed for the expenses, including the down payment on the apartment. 

In December 2020, Jacob Wohlstadter’s company, Meso Scale Diagnostics, announced that its serology panels, which are used to detect the presence of antibodies in the blood from the body’s response to an infection, would be used in Operation Warp Speed Phase III vaccine clinical trials.  

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© 2023 Joel Engelhardt. All rights reserved.

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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