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Delays aren't medical city's biggest challenge in Lake Nona

T

he medical city sprouting in southeast Orlando is behind schedule. So what?

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The delays mean that the

University of Central Florida

medical school, UCF's Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences, the

Burnham Institute

for Medical Research and the M.D. Anderson

Cancer

Center of

Orlando

are about six months to a year off their originally anticipated openings.

If that's the worst that can be said in a recession that has ravaged most business development, we should all let out a sigh of relief.

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But before we exhale, there are some much larger challenges to consider for the emerging life sciences cluster in

Lake Nona

.

The development was imagined as the invention of a new piece of Orlando's economy that would help insulate the region from the perils of relying on tourism, real estate and population growth that have made weathering this recession especially hard on Central Florida.

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But biotechnology is like the new game on the playground of economic development. Everybody's doing it. And a lot of other regions have done it a lot bigger and faster than we have — at least so far.

That's because key generators of money and jobs are more available elsewhere. Chief among them are venture capital, a pharmaceutical industry base and more aggressive research agendas at local universities.

"Orlando is one of many cities that has designs on being a biotechnology center, but I think there's very little evidence that any other than a handful of established places has a chance of growing that industry," said Joe Cortright, an economist with

Portland

, Ore.-based Impresa, a firm that specializes in industry clusters.

The Milken Institute published a study in May that details the Top 11 life science clusters in

the United States

, with Boston,

Philadelphia

and

San Francisco

taking the first three spots.

Florida

is nowhere close to making that list.

"You are talking about decades" to get to that level, said Perry Wong, senior managing economist at Milken and an author of the recent study as well as one commissioned by UCF several years ago.

That is not to discount the progress made by Lake Nona. The establishment of the Nemours and Veterans hospitals along with Burnham and the medical school are extraordinary feats in these times.

Most recently, Burnham at Lake Nona announced a partnership with

Duke University

Hospital that has the potential to bring the power of more research dollars to local scientists.

The idea that mobility and virtual connections can erase some of the geographic barriers of the past provide a lot of hope to Orlando.

Bill Warren, chief executive officer of VaxDesign Corp., a firm that creates surrogate human immune systems to test drugs and

vaccines

and moved to Orlando in 2004, said he once questioned whether Orlando could even become a second-tier cluster.

"I was wondering if it would come to fruition," he said. "Now I am OK, it can happen. We have to make it happen ... We're going up the mountain, but we're not at the top. We have to make sure we keep pushing up the mountain or we're going to fall down."

But the idea that Orlando is going to morph into an eastern outpost of

San Diego

(No. 8 on the Milken list and hometown to Burnham) without big advances in venture capital and more university research is just wishful thinking.

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