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Is Burnham the next Disney?

T

he arrival of the

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Burnham Institute

for Medical Research and the surrounding "medical city" in

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Lake Nona
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has been repeatedly compared to the advent of

Walt Disney

World.

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That's not a comparison to be taken lightly.

Disney is nothing short of the keystone to

Orlando's

economy.

It's the largest single-site employer in

the United States

, with 61,000 jobs. And it's the main reason why 48 million people visit

Orlando

each year.

Can the development in south

Orlando

that includes Burnham, UCF's medical college and bioscience school, Nemours Children's Hospital, a Veterans hospital, M.D. Anderson

Cancer

Research Center and a research outpost for the

University of Florida

live up to that? Not likely.

Don't get me wrong: the construction, science and collaboration taking place in Lake Nona is remarkable, especially considering the way it forged ahead through the deepest recession of our time.

And over the next decade, Burnham will likely put Orlando on the map as a center for

diabetes

and

obesity

research.

But if Orlando is searching for a Holy Grail to provide high-paying professions to balance the low-wage service jobs in the tourism sector, then Burnham is only a

piece

of the Grail.

The region's simulation sector, which employs 20,000 people across Central Florida with more than 100 companies and military agencies, is another piece.

In terms of scale, Burnham and the planned life sciences cluster likely will never rival the impact that Disney has had on the region. (For the record, Disney considers all the comparisons "great flattery," says Senior Vice President Shannon McAleavey, and Disney executive

Al Weiss

serves on Burnham's board.)

Right now there are about 4,500 jobs committed to Lake Nona when the projects already announced are built, said Rasesh Thakkar, senior managing director of the Tavistock Group, owner of the medical city land.

From there, it's a long way to get to being Disney-sized.

Thakkar said he thinks the Burnham spark will become a "raging fire," but didn't touch the Disney parallel.

"It makes me uneasy to compare what's happening at Lake Nona medical city with things that have had such critical mass and so many years to build up," he said. "History will let us know."

Still, Orange County Mayor

Rich Crotty

said on Thursday a local biotech sector could absolutely be as game-changing as Disney and repeated Gov.

Jeb Bush

's belief that it would be "more transformational" than anything in

Florida

since the invention of air-conditioning.

One reason is that research firms like Burnham, which received $350 million in state and local incentives

,

are supposed to generate spinoff companies that commercialize scientific discoveries and create even more jobs.

Burnham, which employs about 850 people at its headquarters in La Jolla, Calif., has spawned 10 spinoff companies in its 33-year history.

Burnham officials couldn't tell me on Thursday how many jobs those companies created, but I do know this: only two of them continue to operate today. Four were bought by larger companies such as Pfizer and the other four closed their doors.

That goes to show you, science isn't a sure thing. Hitting on a huge biotech win is about as easy as picking the winning lottery numbers. And the odds aren't much better.

Even though Burnham may never rival Disney's impact on Central Florida, they have at least one thing in common.

They both have a lot of believers in their magic.

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