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June 2, 2009

Medical Communities: La Jolla to Lake Nona

Filed under: Regional Centers — Doctor @ 11:16 am

The “Golden Triangle” of research facilities and biotech companies in San Diego took decades to evolve into a cluster that now employs an estimated 40,000 people with a $9.1 billion annual impact on the region’s economy.

Today, that region is home to 500 plus biomedical companies, including the Burnham Institute for Medical Research, which opened a new $85 million Florida laboratory in Orlando’s Lake Nona community on May 15, 2009.

If San Diego’s 40-year-old renowned life science cluster is a mature oak tree, then Orlando’s new 600-acre “medical city” in Lake Nona is a rapid-growth sapling on steroids.

Medical City in Orlando

Medical City in Orlando

New biotech and pharmaceutical companies are expected to sprout up around the medical facilities already planned or coming out of the ground at the Lake Nona community.  And new high speed trains will link the region to Tampa Bay.

The projected end-result: a vibrant new Central Florida research center employing more than 30,000 people with an $8 billion economic impact.

And officials aim to accomplish all this in a fraction of the time it took San Diego to build its life sciences cluster.

The key: La Jolla, California-based Burnham.

Lessons from San Diego

The coastal San Diego area — once heavily dependent on the tourism and defense industries, like Orlando — successfully diversified during the past few decades to became one of the country’s top life sciences clusters. “Now that it’s mature and the baby has grown up, it’s easier to attract companies,” said Brent Jacobs, a senior director with Cushman & Wakefield in San Diego.

It started with the University of California San Diego’s medical school and research institutes like the Scripps Research Institute, the Salk Institute and Burnham. In the 1960s, they clustered around the ocean bluffs of the city’s Torrey Pines Mesa area of La Jolla.

Much of the initial economic development was organic, with San Diego researchers starting small biotech firms, some of which eventually got bought out by bigger companies. “Things happened here not so much by revolution, as evolution,” said Joe Panetta, president of Biocom, an association representing more than 575 biotechnology and medical device companies in Southern California.

In 1985, the UCSD Connect program was founded to foster biotech entrepreneurship by connecting three main ingredients: research institutes that create intellectual property; talented people who make discoveries; and entrepreneurial venture capital and management skills to develop a discovery into a marketable product.

San Diego developed its renowned biotech cluster due to investment in research; collaboration between industry, government and academia; and the entrepreneurial spirit of business and government leaders, said a 2001 study by Harvard University Professor Michael E. Porter.

And San Diego industry leaders foresee Orlando’s biotech cluster developing much faster.

Although growing a research institute from scratch typically takes a long time, said Duane J. Roth, CEO of the UCSD Connect program, Florida jump-started that process by recruiting Burnham, an existing one.

Orlando also now can see what did and didn’t work in San Diego, said Biocom’s Panetta. “You’ve got the benefit of 20-20 hindsight.”

Collaborative cluster

To be sure, it will take a few more years for the rest of the Lake Nona medical city facilities to be completed and for partnerships to get going.

But the $350 million incentive package Burnham got from Florida in 2006, plus support from Orange County, the city of Orlando and the Tavistock Group, allowed it to acquire top talent and technology for its new Orlando facility in a year, as opposed to a decade, said Burnham President and CEO Dr. John C. Reed.

Just in the past 18 months, Burnham at Lake Nona has recruited about a dozen lead scientists and eventually will have a total of 300 employees.

When Burnham announced plans to build a facility in Lake Nona, others quickly followed suit: Nemours decided to build its new children’s hospital there and plans for a new VA Medical Center were approved.

Other medical projects in the works: the University of Central Florida College of Medicine and Health Sciences campus, the University of Florida research and academic center and the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center research center. And most of these groups plan to collaborate on research.

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