October 26, 2021

Research Florida

Turning point: What Sanford Burnham Prebys' exit means

Jason Garcia | 8/26/2016

On the most visible level, several major tenants have joined the institute at the Medical City complex. Much has been publicly funded development — the UCF med school, a University of Florida research building and a federal VA hospital. But there has been private investment as well, including non-profit Nemours and a 92,000-sq.-ft. GuideWell UST Global Innovation Center, a complex equipped with offices and wet labs for use by companies developing health care diagnostic, treatment and monitoring solutions. GuideWell is the parent company of health insurer Florida Blue.

The institute has also developed partnerships with several pharmaceutical companies and also has partnered with Florida Hospital on a Translational Research Institute for Metabolism and Diabetes on Florida Hospital’s main Orlando campus, which is designed to combine the institute’s basic research with Florida Hospital’s large patient base and clinical trial ability. That facility is an anchor of a broader, 172-acre “Health Village” Florida Hospital is constructing.

Kelly says the institute also has helped attract top talent to central Florida. When Nemours was wooing Dr. Terri Finkel from the University of Pennsylvania to be pediatrics chair and chief scientific officer, the institute offered her lab space at its facility.

When the institute brought in Dr. Peter Crawford as director of its cardiovascular metabolism program, his wife, Dr. Jane Chen, became a top cardiologist at the Orlando VA Medical Center. And the institute helped recruit Dr. Steven Smith from Louisiana State University’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center to the institute and Florida Hospital, where he became the hospital system’s first chief scientific officer.

Since the institute opened in 2009, Kelly says researchers at its Orlando campus have produced more than 425 research publications and brought in grants and contracts worth more than $125 million.

Over the past eight years, “there have been a number of incredible strides that have been made and a number of things that weren’t envisioned by the original architects” of the deal, Kelly says. “It’s still growing. It hasn’t completely matured. But my point is that, out of the blocks, things are going very well.”

When state leaders began using incentives to create a life sciences industry in the mid-2000s, some argued Florida would have done better by investing directly into universities rather than doling it out to private foundations and companies.

The institute’s plan to hand its Lake Nona campus to the University of Florida may make some of those warnings look prescient. But Kelly insists that Florida’s life sciences industry wouldn’t have developed the same way without the private actors, which have different cultures than big universities.

Unlike large universities, the Lake Nona campus focuses its science on a niche — diabetes and obesity — which has helped focus the region’s broader life sciences growth. Kelly says the institute has also taken a “Manhattan Project-like” approach by bringing together scientists from a variety of disciplines, such as biochemists, physiologists and physicians, without the bureaucratic resistance that often occurs at large institutions. Kelly says the institute, as a private entity, has encouraged an entrepreneurial culture, partnering with industry giants such as Pfizer and Takeda and pushing its researchers to search for cures that can be brought to market and monetized.

“We have created a very unusual and unique culture,” Kelly says. “This never could have happened just as part of a university at the beginning.”

If he’s right, the trick will be preserving those advantages once Burnham’s Orlando operation is, in fact, part of a university.


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