UCF medical school's debut is just the beginning

Just off State Road 417 in south Orlando, a meandering boulevard lined with saplings offers a rare glimpse of hope amid an otherwise cloudy Central Florida economy.

After a mile's drive, the building blocks of a new Medical City are falling into place, framed by streets with names such as Exploration Boulevard and surrounded by hundreds of acres of open land adjacent to the upscale Lake Nona community.

The region's new biomedical industry reaches a milestone Monday as UCF's College of Medicine — the heart of the project — welcomes its first 40 students. They will meet in temporary digs at the home campus till the new building opens next year at Lake Nona.

Overall, the sprawling development — and its estimated $2 billion in construction work — is a compelling sight amid the nation's worst recession since the Great Depression. The vigorous activity is a stark contrast to the double-digit unemployment that has hit Florida and the U.S. during the downturn.

And the emerging complex is already creating jobs in a health-care sector that has been one of the few to hold its own despite massive job losses in many other fields during the past two years.

It was more than a job that attracted Dr. Philip Wood, a diabetes and obesity researcher for the Burnham Institute's $80 million research unit, which opened in April. It was a chance to be in on the ground floor of something special.

"This was just a once-in-a-career opportunity to be part of the launch of something with such a strong plan," said Wood, an author, researcher and former genetics professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. "Once UCF's medical school and everything else is in place out here, there is going to be a tremendous synergy."

Joining Burnham later this month, the UCF medical school's biomedical research unit is set to open on the school's $100 million medical campus at Lake Nona.

Elsewhere, a construction crew works on the Nemours Children's Hospital. And just last week, the Department of Veterans Affairs awarded its first contract to begin work on a new VA Medical Center. Both are scheduled to open in 2012.

"It is surprising how fast this is happening," said Rasesh Thakkar, managing director of Lake Nona developer Tavistock Group, which donated land for the UCF and Burnham facilities. "The level of excitement regionwide is palpable."

But the 700-acre biomed project is as much about the future as it is the present. Thousands of empty acres surround the nascent complex — plenty of room for residential, retail and office development.

Organizers hope it becomes an economic dynamo, generating billions of dollars in activity, tens of thousands of jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in new tax revenue for Florida. Such a bonanza is quite possible within 10 years, according to a study commissioned by UCF earlier this year and conducted by Tallahassee-based Arduin, Laffer & Moore Econometrics.

But exactly how does a Medical City become a Silicon Valley? That is one of the big questions even as the long-awaited vision plays out amid the drag of a sour economy.

"This recession is unlike any other; it is not going to just blow over. It is going to be felt at least through another generation of Americans," said Angelos Angelou, an economic consultant based in Austin, Texas, who has studied Central Florida's economy for the Metro Orlando Economic Development Commission.

"Many jobs lost in the manufacturing sector are never really going to come back," he said. "There will be new jobs, however, in growth areas such as biomed and biotech. So from that perspective, this [medical city] is a well-timed investment for Orlando."

The future is nowSome of the hoped-for economic impact will be inevitable. The highly paid work force alone would have a ripple effect in the local economy. UCF's med school alone will employ more than 350 — its payroll topping $40 million.

Likewise, Burnham plans to have 300 at full staff; the VA hospital, more than 2,000, while Nemours projects 1,900 direct and indirect jobs. The M.D. Anderson Cancer Research Center and University of Florida will also have operations there.

All together, the major players will employ close to 5,000 doctors, scientists, researchers and other support staff.

UCF said it already has seen the early stages of a biomed cluster in the six years since it established the Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences, now the research arm of its new medical school.

A half-dozen companies have started, based on new therapies developed in the school. They are now part of UCF's business incubator, which has five locations across the region.

"That's a pretty good pace of activity," said M.J. Soileau, UCF's vice president for research and commercialization. "We expect that to continue and accelerate as we round out our staff."

As the linchpin of the medical city, the new medical school acts a catalyst for the research work being done by the rest of the players, he said.

"The faculty, residents and researchers all feed off each other," he said. "Having a med school and a nearby hospital gives everyone the opportunity to do research that they wouldn't necessarily do by themselves. It's the kind of collaborative environment that you can't have from a distance or on the Internet."

Often drawing six-figure salaries, research professionals have what economists call a strong "multiplier effect" in an economy. That means they purchase a lot more goods and services than an average-wage worker.

But the gathering of such expertise in one place also will attract other ventures — everything from basic medical-supply companies to more biomedical research groups, organizers say.

The research is expected to give birth to new findings, treatments, drugs, therapies — even cures — that will have tremendous economic potential as researchers, medical-school faculty and/or graduates spin off their work into marketable products.

Then there's the pairing of new discoveries with business-savvy professionals, a combination that could take the Lake Nona complex to the next level, from a site of excellent research to a world-class industry brimming with new companies.

Such entrepreneurial spinoffs have fueled not only renowned developments such as Silicon Valley, but also Central Florida's own high-paying, high-tech sectors: laser science and training technology, said Richard Fox, a long-time local high-tech executive and partner in the Astralis Group, an Orlando-based business-consulting company.

"The time frame will be many years," he said. "The region's electro-optics cluster and the simulation and training cluster both started in the early 1970s. They were visible as clusters 10 years later and hit their strides 10 years after that."

Economic concernsDespite the medical city's potential boom in the future, most agree the current financial crisis could affect how soon the growth will kick in.

Even Thakkar, the Tavistock managing director, acknowledged that getting access to financing, such as venture capital, has been tough during this downturn.

"I know that clearly the credit crunch and the economy/financial crisis affects everyone," he said. "But I have always said that as far as I am concerned, venture capital is not an issue — if there is a great discovery worthy of becoming a company, the money will be there."

Still, you can't underestimate the effect of the freeze-up of financing on Central Florida's medical city, other experts said.

"It is not an insurmountable issue, but it is making things more difficult, and it might slow down the timeline of events," said Mark Wiederhold, a former research director for the Scripps Clinic Medical Group who is now president of San Diego-based Virtual Reality Medical Center.

Wiederhold's company opened a unit in Orlando last year to be close to the medical city and the region's training-technology industry.

"Because of the presence of the UCF medical school, Burnham and the others, this region has a tremendous opportunity to become a major player in medical simulation industry," he said.

Boosted by such interest, UCF's med school is starting with a big vote of confidence from industry, said Deborah German, dean of the College of Medicine.

German alluded to the famous line in the movie Field of Dreams, in which a voice convinces the main character to build a baseball park in the middle of a cornfield: If you build it, they will come.

"The fact that we have almost $2 billion of construction going on there ... we're already at the 'they will come' stage,'" German said. "Even before we completely built it, they came."

Sentinel staff writer Fernando Quintero contributed to this report. Richard Burnett can be reached at 407-420-5256 or rburnett@orlandosentinel.com.

Everything you want to know about the school at OrlandoSentinel.com/ucfmedschool

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
Comments
Loading