As 700-ish Central Florida VIPs were celebrating economic growth in Orange County at the annual James B. Greene awards dinner the evening of May 17, news broke that Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute at Lake Nona (SBP at Lake Nona), the original anchor in Medical City, would leave Orlando. On the heels of that disturbing announcement, a potential partner for SBP quickly emerged: the University of Florida (UF).
"Don't be surprised with how fast UF moved on this," said a local healthcare leader who requested anonymity. "They're quite keen on expanding in Central Florida, and UF has been working with SBP for some time now."
Even folks usually in the know don't understand exactly what happened to upset SBP executives.
"We only got one day's warning ahead of the media reports," said Cissy Proctor, executive director of the Florida Department of Economic Growth. SBP employees received about the same length warning.
Some have speculated that perhaps Gov. Rick Scott's recent line-item veto of state allocations for SBP hastened decision-makers' call to leave Central Florida.
"We're going to continue to talk to Sanford Burnham," Scott told reporters at a May 20 press conference.
Several economic developers are miffed that SBP plans to leave the area, especially after receiving $373 million in economic incentives in 2006, a move championed by then Gov. Jeb Bush to diversify Orlando's tourism-reliant economy into a rich biomedical research and development cluster near the city's relatively low-fare international airport. To locate in Lake Nona Medical City, economic developers presented SBP with the region's largest incentive package to date - $300 million from Florida, $40 million from Orange County, and $33 million from Orlando.
Heather Fagan, spokesperson for Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer, told WUSF News: "It's easy to look back and ask questions."
Leaders of the San Jolla, Calif.-based research giant have said they'll leave behind the institute, which cost $32.7 million to build and employed 262 as of last year, according to Orange County reports. Employee wages average nearly $65,000, mostly to competitively recruit researchers of metabolic diseases, such as diabetes. That wage is some 30 percent higher than the median wage of Orange County residents.
SBP's initial employee count called for more than 300. As it stands, the incentive package represents roughly $1.4 million per employee. A lingering question remains about the number of relocated employees possibly returning to California. In particular, onlookers are waiting to see whether recently recruited world-renowned scientist Douglas Lewandowski, PhD, and three members of his research team from University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine will remain.
SBP's economic incentives were also part of the state's plan to lure other major players to Lake Nona Medical City, which now harbors Nemours Children's Hospital, Veterans Affairs Hospital, University of Central Florida College of Medicine, UF Research & Academic Center, and GuideWell UST Global Innovation Center. All built within the last decade, the newbies represent billions in construction and provide employment for an estimated 5,000.
"Sanford Burnham fulfilled" its role as "the catalyst that allowed us to grow Med City into what it is," said Dyer, a member of the original recruiting team for SBP.
Ironically, SBP and UF are cobbling together an expedited proposal that requires the approval of the same people caught off-guard by SBP's announcement: Florida, Orange County, Orlando and Lake Nona Land Company. UF also needs approval of the plan from their Board of Trustees and State Board of Governors.
Too tall an order?
"As I understand, this proposed new collaborative partnership would maximize the benefit to Medical City and the entire Central Florida region as we work to become a leader in bio-medical research and development," said Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs.
If UF takes over the Lake Nona facility, it would need to go through a partnership in the UF CTSI (Clinical and Translational Science Institute), supported in part by National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants. Established in 2008 to expedite health research, UF expanded its collaboration with Florida State University (FSU) as a community research partner in 2015.
UF has been growing its presence in Orlando in significant ways. Several years ago, UF Health partnered with Orlando Health when M.D. Anderson was removed as sponsor of its cancer center. Recently, UF Health Cancer Center-Orlando Health began treating patients with proton therapy. On May 23, Orlando Health and UF opened a new cancer treatment facility in Lake Mary. A collaboration with SBP would expand on UF's established research imprint in Lake Nona Medical City.