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Medical City Is Changing Florida's DNA

[Photo: Jim Hobart / Macbeth Photography]

The three-story Burnham Institute building stands out as a shiny, landscaped oasis amid 600 dusty acres in southeast Orlando that have been scraped naked by bulldozers and smoothed with 10 million square yards of fill dirt. The first of what ultimately will number 300 Burnham scientists and support staff have settled in to their new digs inside the $85-million research building.

Burnham, the La Jolla, Calif.-based research institution that’s among the top four recipients of grant funding from the National Institutes of Health, will have plenty of company soon enough. In addition to the Burnham, the site known at least for the time being as “Medical City” encompasses:

» The University of Central Florida’s new College of Medicine, including the Burnett Medical Science Building, both nearing completion

» The M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, which will operate on the fifth floor of the Burnett building until it builds its own facility nearby

» The Nemours Children’s Hospital, now under construction

» The Orlando Veterans Affairs Medical Center, a more than half-billion-dollar facility already funded by Congress and expected to be finished by 2012

» A University of Florida Academic and Research center planned close to the Burnham building.

Burnham’s Orlando facility already attracts almost $40 million in NIH funding. CEO John Reed says a chance to immediately be part of a cluster was the biggest factor in Burnham’s decision to open in Orlando. [Photo: Burnham]

Meanwhile, adjacent to the Medical City property, the county has opened a state-of-the-art public high school that will eventually serve many of the children of the scientists, physicians and researchers who’ll populate Medical City’s workforce. All told, more than $1.5 billion in biomedical-related construction is complete, under way or funded — on a parcel of less than one square mile.

Also part of this cover story:
» The Keys to Medical City
Ironically, a medical school wasn’t part of UCF President's John Hitt’s vision until he learned that “you don’t find a bioscience cluster around anything but a medical school.”
» Meet Joe Lewis, the Handshake Billionaire
» Video: The Making of Orlando's Medical City
The fact that so many medical and biomedical facilities are opening in one community in Florida within two years of each other would be noteworthy by itself. The fact that they are opening on one parcel of land, in a coordinated fashion, with a collaborative mission, is even more significant — for both Orlando and the state.

The state of Florida and local communities have invested around a billion dollars of the public’s money in nudging Florida’s economy out of its traditional cheap-land, cheap-labor development. The strategy: Mimic San Diego’s evolution by using research institutions to spin off scientific discoveries with commercial potential. From the onset, it’s been a high-risk, high-reward strategy. Joe Panetta, CEO of the life sciences trade organization Biocom in San Diego, calls biotech “the riskiest business on the planet” even as he touts the $67,000 average wage, cultural benefits and “massive business activity” that biotech clusters and companies generate.

Scripps, the first Southern California research operation enticed to build a Florida satellite, was expected to be a nucleus around which a cluster would form over time. And Scripps has in fact begun to snag research dollars and high-profile scientists after slogging through a politically tangled search for a site.

But Scripps came alone and has to generate much of its own momentum in attracting talent, related research and related businesses. Medical City, by contrast, is arriving as a constellation rather than a single star. The sudden presence of a cluster of institutions represents a big step toward critical mass for the state’s biotech initiative and shifts the biotech center of gravity to the middle of the state. Within less than two decades, the institutions at Medical City, coupled with the existing photonics and simulation businesses and research capacity in central Florida, should give Florida the business dynamo that it has always yearned for — a scientific research and commercial complex that can begin to play in the same league as areas like the Route 128 corridor around Boston and Research Triangle Park in North Carolina.

“Absolutely,” says Thaddeus Seymour Jr., vice president and general manager of Health and Life Science Investments for Lake Nona, a division of Tavistock Group, which seeded the emergence of Medical City with both cash and land. “We think that way. It’s also the way Orlando thinks, and the way the state thinks.”

UCF’s College of Medicine encompasses both the medical school and the Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences, which offers three undergrad degrees and three graduate degrees. [Photo: Jeffrey Camp]

Ultimately, more than 300 scientists will work at Burnham Institute in Orlando. [Photo: Jeffrey Camp]

Creating new science and turning it into better health — and money — requires a four-slice pie, Seymour believes: In addition to a research institution, a successful cluster needs an educational component (the medical school); a clinical treatment center (Nemours and the VA); and a set of commercial players — venture capitalists, entrepreneurs, lawyers and investors who translate the science into the marketplace.

Burnham scientific director Daniel P. Kelly with the facility’s $12-million robotic Ultra High Throughput Chemical Screening System, used for identifying compounds useful in drug development.
[Photo: Jeffrey Camp]
The slices aren’t always the same size: San Diego’s biotech cluster, Seymour says, is long on research and commerce, shorter on treatment and education. Houston, by contrast, is recognized as a top destination for heart treatment, less so as a commercial, educational or research center. Boston and San Francisco have a balanced presence in all four areas, Seymour says, with well-developed educational institutions, treatment hospitals, research institutions and commercial sectors.

The other cities’ clusters developed organically, in fits and starts, over many years. Medical City, however, is coming to life with a solid foundation in three of the four slices. Burnham President and CEO John Reed says a chance to immediately be part of a cluster, “working in proximity to a diversity of partners,” was the single biggest factor in his organization’s decision to locate in Orlando. Initially, he says, the mix will help each institution with the essential task of recruiting scientific talent — and by extension the grant funding that top scientists bring with them. Often, he explains, high-profile researchers also want to teach at a medical school or participate part time in a clinical practice at a hospital.

In addition, says Reed, the presence of a cluster makes it easier to find a workplace for professional-level spouses who frequently work in related fields — a surgeon, for example, married to a researcher.

Longer term, clusters enable institutions to collaborate more easily on grant proposals to federal agencies like the National Institutes of Health, where Burnham gets 80% of its funding, and then on the research itself. Already, Burnham is partnering with M.D. Anderson on one proposal and has created a joint venture with Florida Hospital, a regional hospital group, involving diabetes research.

Burnham’s operation at Medical City will focus primarily on diabetes and obesity, Reed says, leveraging Burnham’s ongoing research into other aspects of the body’s metabolism, including cancer, in which something goes awry. In short order, Reed expects Burnham will be attracting at least $50 million in grants through its Orlando facility, and he says that “when Medical City is fully established we expect grant revenue in the billions.”

Tavistock has some expectations, too. The Medical City site is just one part of 7,000 mostly undeveloped acres that comprise the Lake Nona Development of Regional Impact. On the Medical City acreage alone, Tavistock plans to build a town center including both urban-style residences and more than 1 million square feet of commercial, hotel and retail space. The company has cleared a hundred or so acres for science and technology companies it expects to be attracted by what’s being built now.

Jeffrey E. Green, Nemours vice president and chief administrative officer for Florida, says the Nemours facility will integrate both research and disease prevention outreach programs into the hospital’s clinical activities. In addition, he says, “We teach medical students and residents and nurses. There’s a real opportunity for that training to occur and for that trained staff to stay in Florida.”
[Photo: Jeffrey Camp]
Ultimately, Tavistock expects about 25,000 people to live in Lake Nona, with 10,000 onsite jobs.

In its early years, Medical City’s weakness will be its commercial slice — the absence of venture capital that’s a traditional and still glaring flaw all across Florida’s business landscape. Seymour expects the collaboration that’s built into the Medical City cluster will speed the development of drug discoveries, medical devices, healthcare information software and other technologies that will attract commercial interests.

“I think if we do it right, all kinds of organizations will be involved on the commerce side,” says Seymour. “We’ll have dozens of venture capital firms, if not physically located here, then down here regularly spending time here with scientists. What we have to worry about is creating the right environment” for the collaboration that’s required to produce scientific progress. “We talk about how to do in 10 years what it took San Diego to do in 30 to 40,” says Seymour.

Rasesh Thakkar, a senior managing director at Tavistock, puts it more bluntly: “Money follows scientists. Then money follows money. Then it grows from there.”

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Burnham Institute for Medical Research (open)

Cost: $85 million

Size: 175,000 square feet

Staff: Ultimately 303, including 30 lead scientists

Salaries and Benefits: $27.8 million

Focus: Research into diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, cancer and drug discoveries

Notable: Burnham is one of only four NIH comprehensive centers for chemical biology and drug discovery in the nation. One of Burnham’s research areas at Lake Nona uses a $12-million robotic “Ultra High Throughput Chemical Screening System” that can screen more than 2 million chemical compounds per day.
[Photo: Burnham]

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University of Central Florida College of Medicine(2010) and Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences (opening this year)

Cost: Medical college, $98 million; Burnett School, $68 million

Size: Medical college, 198,000 square feet; Burnett School, 170,000 square feet

Faculty and Staff: 412 (full and part time)

Salaries and Benefits: $40.6 million

Notable: The first 41-member class began studies this year, all with fully funded scholarships, at the UCF campus. The medical education program moves to Lake Nona in May. Biomedical researchers move into the Burnett building this year. There are also plans to relocate UCF’s College of Nursing to Lake Nona.
[Photo: Jeffrey Camp]

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Nemours Children’s Hospital (2012)

Cost: $380 million

Size: 630,000 square feet

Staff: 2,600 projected

Salaries and Benefits: $81 million projected

Notable: The hospital will have 95 beds. The 60-acre health campus will feature a children’s outpatient specialty clinic, an emergency department and education and research centers.

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Orlando Veterans Affairs Medical Center (2012)

Cost: $665 million

Size: 1.2 million square feet

Staff: 2,101 projected

Salaries and Benefits: $262 million projected

Notable: The hospital will serve more than 400,000 veterans in central Florida with 134 hospital beds, 120 community living center beds and an outpatient clinic. The center also has a 60-bed residential rehabilitation program.

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University of Florida Academic and Research Center (planned)

Cost: $61 million

Size: 100,000 square feet

Staff: 120, serving 200 students

Notable: The center will house a Comprehensive Drug Development Center, including a Ph.D. program; a College of Pharmacy that will move from Apopka; and 15 biomedical research laboratories.

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M.D. Anderson Cancer Research Institute (opening this year)

Size: The institute will move to 30,000 square feet on the fifth floor of UCF’s Burnett School building (photo above), paying the university $2.5 million to occupy space for up to five years as M. D. Anderson Orlando plans and builds a freestanding research facility at Medical City. The institute includes 25 researchers and could triple in size after the freestanding facility is constructed.
[Photo: Jeffrey Camp]