Bits&Bytes: Move for dedicated biotech greenhouse funding sidetracked

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Efforts to create an annual funding stream for Pennsylvania's three bio-focused economic development engines stalled this week.

State Rep. Todd Eachus, D-Luzerne, had moved to ensure that the life sciences greenhouses would share about $10 million a year through an amendment -- attached to a related bill passed Wednesday -- that would set aside 3 percent of the tobacco settlement dollars originally earmarked for expansion of PACENET. He, along with other lawmakers, felt the money was available because of the passage of Medicare Part D, the new drug prescription program.

The problem is that another bill passed by the state Senate the same day maintained the status quo on the tobacco settlement funds -- that is, kept the money earmarked for PACENET.

And by Thursday morning, the bill that would have funded the greenhouses had hit a brick wall. It was clear lawmakers would not want to vote against a bill that would appear to support seniors.

As a result, the future of dedicated dollars for the greenhouses is uncertain.

"It's too soon to tell what will happen," said Kate Philips, Gov. Ed Rendell's spokeswoman. The bill providing greenhouse funding is "all a part of a greater context of the budget, and I won't predict" how that will play out.

Sources familiar with the greenhouse legislation have said that funding the state greenhouses is a critical component of building support for Gov. Ed Rendell's proposed Jonas Salk Legacy Fund, which will leverage tobacco settlement money to allow for a $500 million investment in health and medical research facilities.

Each greenhouse -- one in Pittsburgh, another in the central part of the state, and a third in Philadelphia, which is known as BioAdvance -- were originally funded nearly five years ago, each with $30 million of tobacco settlement money and private matching dollars.

A dedicated funding stream for the greenhouse, sources said, could help appease members of the biotech community who have publicly hoped that more state dollars could be directed toward growing biotech companies.

At an unrelated press conference yesterday, University of Pittsburgh Chancellor Mark Nordenberg, who co-chairs the Pittsburgh Life Sciences Greenhouse board, said that continued financial support for the Pittsburgh greenhouse and other local tech-based economic development groups is always a challenge.

"We're always looking for alternatives," he said. "I can't say anything more specific than that.

Bits & Bytes has learned that Harmarville-based nanotechnology firm Plextronics Inc., which has launched a fund-raising effort, is in talks with North Side-based private equity firm Birchmere Ventures.

Plextronics earlier this year said that Chief Executive Officer Andrew Hannah hoped to raise from $8 million to $12 million from venture capital firms and private investors.

Plextronics spokeswoman Jennifer Honig declined to comment on Birchmere, saying only that her firm hopes to make an announcement by August. "We're talking to a lot of VCs in and out of town, she said." Phone calls to Birchmere Ventures were not returned.

Lawrence-based communications equipment provider Black Box Corp. said that its board of directors declared a quarterly cash dividend of 6 cents per share of its common stock, payable on July 14 to stockholders of record at the close of business on June 30.


Got tech buzz? Contact high tech reporter Corilyn Shropshire at cshropshire@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1413.


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