Burnham Institute for Medical Research

Scientific director Dr. Daniel Kelly (right) works with postdoctoral associate Zhenji Gan in a laboratory at the Burnham Institute for Medical Research at Lake Nona. The official dedication of the new 175,000-square-foot Diabetes and Obesity Research Center, at the "medical city" at Lake Nona, will be Oct. 8. (JOE BURBANK/ORLANDO SENTINEL / October 3, 2009)

The glass-clad Burnham Institute for Medical Research shimmers in the sunlight, which pours in through banks of windows and a giant atrium that illuminates the building's interior.

It is a fitting image for an institution that has served as a beacon in the development of Orlando's life-sciences hub.

When Burnham is officially dedicated Thursday — more than five months after scientists started moving in — it will be the first building to open at the emerging "medical city" at Lake Nona in southeast Orange County.

"It's an exciting milestone for us," said Burnham President and CEO John Reed. "The thing I'm most proud of is that it's everything we said we would do — on time, on plan, on budget. I'm looking forward to a fun celebration, and to catching our breath for a second to pause and reflect on what we've accomplished and what lies ahead."

The grand opening of Burnham's $85million building — which took a few more months to build than original estimates and came in slightly over budget — represents a major step in raising Central Florida's profile as an emerging biotech hub.

Economic magnet

After biotech giant Scripps Research Institute chose South Florida over Orlando in 2003, local and state business and community leaders came together to attract Burnham and the University of Central Florida's School of Medicine to serve as anchors for the proposed medical city.

A $350million incentive package that included land, construction funds and in-kind services convinced San Diego-based Burnham in 2005 to build its second location at Lake Nona.

"It was important to develop this site in a high-quality way to show the state and the region that we would do something special with the precious resource that was given to us," said Dr. Daniel Kelly, scientific director of Burnham at Lake Nona.

Orlando Economic Development Commission President Ray Gilley compared Burnham's move to the square-mile parcel of land — along with the UCF medical school — to the arrival of Disney four decades ago.

"Burnham is a great part of the nucleus of anchor organizations that are the centerpiece of a life-sciences cluster in Orlando," Gilley said.

But for Gilley and other business leaders, Burnham is also a magnet that will attract not only other biotech companies, but ultimately generate economic activity for the region.

"Look at other models like San Diego, and what they've accomplished with a similar mix of anchors," Gilley said. "They've been able to generate millions for the local economy. The difference between them and us is that we've shortened the timetable by quite a bit."

In San Diego, life sciences have brought $9billion to the region's gross regional product in the past two decades, according to the local Bureau of Economic Analysis.

$6.4B local impact

Duane Roth, CEO of the nonprofit Connect, a technology-business accelerator in San Diego, is impressed by the strides made at Lake Nona.

"By convincing existing institutions like Burnham — which got its start here in San Diego — to expand to Orlando rather than trying to lure startups was nothing less than brilliant," Roth said. "That was a way to speed up the pace and not have to start from scratch."

In addition to Burnham and the UCF medical school, the medical city will include Nemours Children's Hospital, a Veterans Affairs Medical Center and M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

The life-sciences cluster is projected to have a potential economic impact of $6.4billion and generate nearly 26,000 jobs in the next 10 years, according to a 2006 study. Those figures are likely to have shrunk some because of the ongoing recession, experts say.

Cutting-edge tech

In 1976, Dr. William H. Fishman and his wife, Lillian, left Boston to found an independent research institution dedicated to the then-new concept of oncodevelopment: combining the study of developmental biology with oncology as a way to better understand the deadly and elusive nature of cancer.

The new La Jolla Cancer Research Foundation would join the Scripps Clinic, Salk Institute and University of California, San Diego to serve as a core scientific center for the region.