From the get-go, what has distinguished the “Medical City” development in the Lake Nona area of Orlando is its scope. Even with the resources of Joe Lewis’ Tavistock Corp., it was no easy feat to bring together, on one site, so many powerful institutions: The Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, the newly opened Nemours Children’s Hospital, the University of Central Florida’s College of Medicine, a University of Florida research and academic center, an M.D. Anderson research operation and a new Orlando VA Medical Center, which will be the largest VA hospital in the country.
The residential and commercial elements of Lake Nona, which eventually will house about 25,000, are just beginning to emerge. But the gravity of a from-scratch $2-billion bioscience cluster is already asserting itself — Nemours and the other institutions have been able to attract nationally known specialists in part because of the opportunity to collaborate with the thousands of other medical, research and technical professionals throughout the medical city nest.
Tavistock, which helped seed Medical City with 100 acres of donated land, will grow richer, of course, as it develops the thousands of acres it owns around the bioscience and medical core. But anyone who thinks of Lake Nona as just some supercharged version of a traditional Florida real estate play has more than missed the point — and failed to understand the breadth of Lewis’ vision and its importance to Florida.
Consider the “Impact Forum” staged in late October by the Lake Nona Institute, the non-profit that Tavistock set up to develop programs to enhance the region’s social and intellectual infrastructure. The forum focused on health care innovation — in particular, ways to use technology, integrated networks and devices to move health care and wellness issues from clinics and hospitals into the community.
The forum wasn’t your average gab-fest, attracting major-league corporate speakers, participants and sponsors, including GE Healthcare and Florida Blue, along with leading minds from academia and the health and technology sector, including former Apple CEO John Scully. Of particular note were partnerships announced at the forum between Lake Nona and corporate heavyweights Johnson & Johnson and Cisco Systems. J&J CEO Alex Gorsky came to announce that Lake Nona will be the focus of a research study by a J&J subsidiary that in effect will turn the entire community into a lab to test health and wellness initiatives.
Cisco’s CEO, John Chambers, announced that Lake Nona will be the company’s first U.S. “Smart+Connected” community (there are eight others elsewhere in the world). Working with Cisco and a communications and technology company called Dais, Lake Nona will integrate all manner of new networking technologies as it builds out, encompassing everything from delivery of city services to lifestyle-related “smart” technology.
The gee-whiz technology mentioned by Chambers and other speakers at the forum was fun — endoscopic cameras small enough to fit in a pill; smart tech systems that regulate traffic lights, street lighting and signage; devices we hold to our eye at home that will determine our eyeglass prescriptions.
But the event’s real importance is the recognition by major corporations — the kind that shape our future — that Lake Nona (and, by extension, Florida) has staked out a place on the cutting-edge that deserves attention and investment.
“What you’re doing here in this metropolitan area is truly a model for the whole country,” Chambers told the forum. None of the other eight communities Cisco had partnered with around the world, he added, was doing what Lake Nona is doing “at the same scale ... of creativeness as it relates to health care and education.”
In another part of his remarks, Chambers offered thoughts that amount to a recipe for other Florida communities looking to grow into this century in their own ways. A community’s ability to innovate, Chambers said, is built on four bases. One, a strong educational system, citing the presence of both UCF and UF at Lake Nona. Two, broadband infrastructure to facilitate communication.
The third element, he said, is the courage to innovate, to take risks. “Very often the people who are best at innovating, at catching market transitions, require groups that have never worked together before to come together.” In creating Lake Nona, he said, Lewis had facilitated an “unbelievable cooperation” among state, city, county and federal governments along with the various medical and educational institutions themselves.
The fourth element is one that Chambers, a Republican, said he “originally didn’t believe in a lot” but had re-evaluated — supportive government. “To do what you are doing here requires ... courage to take risks that government leaders are often not rewarded for.”
In Lake Nona, I think, Florida may be getting a linchpin for the “high-tech” corridor it has aspired to for so long. In any event, its emergence is an economic turning point for the state. When I began here at Florida Trend 16 years ago, Florida was not in the national bioscience, high-tech conversation. What has changed — thanks to the vision of people like Lewis, former Gov. Jeb Bush and UCF President John Hitt — is that Florida is now very much a part of that conversation. They’ve created a different sense of what Florida is and what it can be.