VGTI Florida to lay off remaining employees, shut down by Oct. 1

In yet another blow to Florida’s bet on biotech, VGTI Florida said late Friday that it is laying off its remaining 34 employees over the next six weeks and shutting down completely by Oct. 1.

VGTI — The Vaccine & Gene Therapy Institute of Florida — has struggled since opening a 100,000-square-foot lab in Port St. Lucie in 2012 near the labs of Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Studies.

The nonprofit was established in 2008 with the assistance of a $60 million grant from the state’s Innovation Incentive Fund intended to anchor and drive the state’s expansion strategy for biomedical research. It also received $60 million from Port St. Lucie and St. Lucie County.

VGTI said in a statement that its board of directors has authorized an orderly wind-down of the biomedical research institute.

“This is a sadly disappointing outcome,” stated Dr. Richard Jove, VGTI Florida’s president and institute director. “We worked so hard over the last two years to attract a key strategic partner to invest in our research mission to continue in Port St. Lucie, but we were unsuccessful.”

In its response to news of closing, the city of Port St. Lucie said it “knew this was a possibility and therefore planned accordingly in the preparation of the 2015/2016 fiscal year budget and will be considering our future options.”

VGTI Florida’s failing was attributed to the cumulative effect of multiple factors including the lack of a university affiliation, National Institutes of Health budget cuts, and the large debt burden associated with the construction of its state-of-the-art facility at the Tradition Center for Innovation in Port St. Lucie.

“Our priority focus is to maximize value for the benefit of creditors to the very best of our ability given the current situation,” Jove said in the statement. “We are equally committed to our employees, as we are providing assistance efforts to help find new opportunities and positions for our extremely talented scientists, research teams and staff.

“VGTI Florida sincerely thanks the citizens of Port St. Lucie and the Treasure Coast for all of the community support over the years and greatly regrets the circumstances that led to this outcome,” Jove said.

In April Jove said VGTI was considering accepting an offer for rent-free space in Palm Beach County for three years.

Kelly Smallridge, president and chief executive of the Business Development Board of Palm Beach County, said Friday that her group “has talked with VGTI very briefly but understand they have some open financial obligations to St. Lucie County and the state. It is very difficult to entertain a relocation under these circumstances.”

Port St. Lucie filed a lawsuit against VGTI in May over a reported $130 million it owes the city.

VGTI’s space includes a $500,000 DNA-sequencing machine and room for 200 scientists. VGTI had 100 workers in 2013, but by this spring, had shrunk to 50 employees.

It had an annual $4.2 million tab to service the debt on its lab.

VGTI Florida was one of seven nonprofit institutes that received more than $1 billion in state and local money as part of former Gov. Jeb Bush’s plan to turn Florida into a medical research hub.

The company did not respond to requests for comment Friday.

Smallridge said her group is updating its life-science plan and will discuss the issue Aug. 25 in Jupiter.

“It’s been over 12 years since we recruited Scripps, and we need to understand the science and companies that have developed here since that time,” she said.

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