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Burnham Institute Official Discusses Goals for New Florida Digs


Florida's more than $1 billion in state and local subsidies has drawn to the Sunshine State a half dozen research institutes that are expected in return to create new jobs and economic activity beyond the tourism, hospitality, and agricultural industries that rise and fall with the economy.

The latest research center to settle into new Florida digs is the Burnham Institute for Medical Research. Over the coming week Burnham, which operates a research center in La Jolla, Calif., expects to finish moving personnel and equipment from three smaller Orlando sites to a new $85 million, 175,000-square-foot building within the 600-acre 'Medical City' science and technology park.

The Medical City is part of the 7,000-acre Lake Nona mixed-use, master-planned community in Orlando, developed by the Tavistock Group of Windermere, Fla.

Burnham is bringing to the new facility the 75 staffers currently employed at its Florida locations, and the institute says it is on track to grow its headcount this year and next. Indeed, as part of its relocation agreement, Burnham agreed in 2006 to employ at least 303 people at Lake Nona within 10 years, in return for its $310 million package of state and local government incentives.

The package consists of $155 million from Florida's $250 million Innovative Incentive Fund, eliminated last year in a budget-cutting move [BRN, May 5, 2008; ], and an equivalent sum from several local sources: $31 million toward building costs from the city of Orlando; $30 million in tissue donations from Orlando Regional HealthCare System and its Florida Hospital; $25 million from the University of Central Florida; and $20 million from Tavistock Group toward site and construction costs.

Within the new building, Burnham investigators plan to study diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. The institute hopes to generate additional news later this month, at the BIO 2009 International Convention, when it anticipates making what Burnham Institute for Molecular Research at Lake Nona spokeswoman Deborah Robison called "an important announcement regarding a very exciting hire."

Burnham is the first institution to open its permanent facility within Medical City. Set to join Burnham in the sci-tech campus will be:

• The University of Florida, which has announced plans for a $62 million, 100,000-square-foot research and academic/conference facility adjacent to the institute;

• UCF, which has almost completed its $99 million, 198,000-square-foot Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences and still constructing its $68 million classroom building and medical library for the new College of Medicine, set to be completed in 2010 though the college will welcome its first med students in 86 days, according to a countdown clock on its web site. Both facilities are within UCF's Health Sciences Campus;

• MD Anderson Cancer Center, which will relocate its Cancer Research Institute into 30,000 square feet of fifth-floor space it has agreed to lease at the five-story Burnett building from UCF, while it completes planning for a permanent facility;

• Nemours Foundation, which on Feb. 25 broke ground on a $400 million, 620,000-square-foot children's hospital with 95 beds, set to open in 2012; and

• The US Department of Veterans Affairs, which broke ground in October 2008 on a $656 million VA Medical Center to consist of a 134-bed hospital, a 118-bed nursing home, a 60-bed residential rehabilitation center, eight operating rooms, two cardiac catheterization laboratories, an outpatient clinic, and a veterans' benefits mini service center. The med center is also to open in 2012.
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BioRegion News spoke on Thursday with Cyril Doucet, vice president of operations and administration for Burnham Florida, about the institute's move into its Lake Nona facility, and its research focus in Florida. Following is an edited transcript of that interview.

How far along is Burnham's move to its permanent facility?

Pretty far along. We've moved everybody in to the new facility here, and we're just settling in and unpacking, and we're testing and calibrating some equipment, and some of the systems in the building. We should be okay next week, which is about mid-May. [Researchers] are already in some cases starting experiments, and starting to feel at home.

What's your target day for finishing up?

It's one of these things where it's hard to pick a specific date. It's not like a manufacturing facility, where we're going to flip a switch, and everything's going to start running. We basically are by mid-May, I would say that by the 15th [or] 16th of May, everything will be up and running.

Has equipment been mostly or entirely been moved, at this point?

Yes, that's correct. It hasn't all been tested, and calibrated, and hooked up. But it has all been moved in.

The cost of the move has been reported to be $100,000.

Yes, that's correct. That's the cost of the move [as charged by] the various vendors and moving companies that we used. We had a situation where we had about 15 specialty vendors. In our case, we were moving some very specialized equipment that had been manufactured by Nikon and Olympus, particularly microscopes. So there were a number of vendors that were involved in coming in, and packing up their equipment, and then taking it over here. Plus we have the regular move agent that we used to pick up all of our belongings, and a lot of the supplies, and administrative files, and a wide variety of computers, and that sort of thing.

Our equipment included different robots, a half-million-dollar confocal microscope, microfluidic machines. We had biological material — the scientists were doing experiments, and then they had to plan for this move. So in preparation, one of our scientists froze 10 million cells as a backup to what was going to be moved, had that down as minus 346 [degrees Farenheit] in liquid nitrogen, and then even as a double backup, he took two million of those cells and FedEx'd them to his collaborative partner at a university.

How many people made the move?

There were 75 of us who moved from a couple of locations in Orlando. Most of us were at the fourth floor of the Florida Blood Center, but there was a number of administrative staff who were located next door to the blood center, in a building called the Liner Building, and we had a few people in downtown Orlando. Now, what's really good about this is that we're all in the same place, and able to make our connections, and get up and running.

What will happen to the blood center space? Will Burnham hold onto that or give it up?

We'll give it up. As far as Burnham is concerned, two years ago we moved into the fourth floor, and we were two guys sitting in a box, trying to figure out how to pick up the phones. And over the intervening two-year period, the fourth floor was renovated to make it lab-ready. Then we recruited and on-boarded a number of scientists.

We're leaving it in a condition that Florida Blood Center can use it for wet lab space. I believe that they have been discussing with the Orlando Economic Development Commission a possibility of using the space as incubator space for small companies, for those that are interested in starting up in Orlando. We renovated 10,000 square feet into wet lab space on the fourth floor, at a cost of about $2 million in 2007. We used it for two years, and now it's available for others to use.

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How closely did the move hew to your schedule?

Well, it was on budget and on schedule. We had always anticipated completing construction around the end of March, or beginning of April, and then being in the building in the spring. Some of the state benchmarks said that they had hoped we would get in, or wanted us to get in by 2010. We're actually in by 2009. In that sense, we finished ahead of schedule. But in terms of the contract that we signed with Lake Nona Corporation and B&K Construction, we signed a contract that was brought in on budget and on schedule.

What brought Burnham to Lake Nona and its 'Medical City' in the first place?

There was a variety of criteria that came into play. There was an incentive program from the state of Florida that was very attractive. I think the location at the Medical City was in and of itself a great incentive, and a great attraction, to have the opportunity to be in a location enabling us to collaborate so closely with universities — the two universities being Central Florida and the University of Florida, with the VA, with Nemours, MD Anderson.

[We liked] the location of the Medical City, the incentive program, the kind of community support we found, and the sort of can-do entrepreneurial spirit that certainly the leadership of Burnham saw when they first came here. And also, I think Orlando, being in central Florida, presents a very attractive place for an organization to locate. It's accessible to one of the best and largest airports in the United States. There's a terrific lifestyle, and accessibility to affordable housing here in central Florida, which helps us in terms of recruiting the best and the brightest for our organization. Those are the elements that were in play when Burnham was going national and trying to asses where it was going to locate. I just think it was a great decision, and one that's going to work out well both for Burnham and central Florida.

You mentioned recruiting the best and the brightest. To what extent will you be recruiting people to fill Burnham's remaining positions, and to what extent will the institute be able to develop talent locally through education?

In terms of our investigators, the plan is to hire 30 faculty level investigators who basically lead research programs. And these investigators potentially are the ones that will draw in the grant support that will allow us to become completely self-sustaining. Those investigators we recruit nationally, both in terms of trying to attract established researchers, as well as young up-and-coming scientists.

Those labs then, in turn, hire postdoctoral fellows, research technicians, and associates. And we also have a variety of research support staff and administrative staff. At that level, we would tend to recruit locally, if possible. It provides us with the opportunity — again, one of the reasons why central Florida was interesting and attractive was because it provides us highly qualified people from a variety of sources.

We expected at this point in time to have about a half dozen investigators on staff, and we're now already at double that, at 12. So we anticipate being over 100 people by the fall, and close to 130 people by the summer of 2010, and within the next seven years, we expect to reach our target of 300 staff in the building, and we even expect to even do better than that.

How many of those staffers will be investigators hired this year and in 2010?

Our target in 2009 into 2010 is to hire another four investigators, and we already have 12 on staff.

How far along is the local recruitment effort?

We recruit. We post our positions on our web site. We have reached out to the universities and colleges to establish contact, so that they're aware of when we put up our positions. We've been very fortunate that, partly because of the interest in Burnham, a little bit hopefully because of our name, we have had excellent response in our recruitment locally.

What effect has the state of the economy in the last few months had on finding people?

I think it's clear that we've been getting larger than anticipated response. We've had a very good response, but I think we're getting an even stronger response because of the local economic conditions on our local positions.

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On the scientific level, in our recruiting for scientists and faculty, I don't think it has had that much of an impact, because we're basically making our search countrywide.

Burnham has said diabetes, obesity, and heart disease will be its areas of research focus of its East Coast campus in Orlando. Is the East Coast more suited to this work than San Diego because of a particular partner, or population?

No, I don’t think that has really anything to do with that. The selection of that theme had more to do with just the general issue that really has arisen over the past five to 10 years as the next big thing. It's also an area that's very complementary to the programs that Burnham has already set up in cancer, and neuroscience, and allergic diseases in San Diego. I think it has more to do with the population as a whole, and a view of what the next epidemic is that we need to address, as opposed to anything specific about Florida.

The East Coast move was driven by wanting to have access to collaboration opportunities with the East Coast universities and organizations, and also to be able to draw on the scientific talent on the East Coast. And I think the motivation [for opening the facility] in Florida was what Florida offers, and offered Burnham as a location on the East Coast. It flowed that way more so than a disease-related issue. The theme was picked because of its importance nationally.

As the Lake Nona facility grows, what effect will that have on Burnham's San Diego labs?

San Diego has basically been growing itself. As [Burnham President and CEO] Dr. [John] Reed has often said, a rising tide lifts all boats. There is a strategic plan that's been approved by the board of trustees for Burnham that sees growth in San Diego in the areas of cancer, neuroscience, and infectious diseases programs, as well as childhood diseases. There has now been a new center that has been opened in San Diego to address that. These are complementary efforts, but certainly Lake Nona is going to be an opportunity to grow on its own, while still collaborating effectively with the mother ship in San Diego.

Our Diabetes and Obesity Research Center is complementary to the four centers of study in La Jolla. But in addition, there are these collaborative efforts [between researchers at both Burnham campuses] that take place. Since this summer, we have the Conrad Prebys Center for Chemical Genomics; it has a base currently in La Jolla, and we're in the process of establishing the screening center here at Lake Nona. And that will be occurring this summer, where we bring in probably the most advanced high throughput screening resources that are available — it's virtually unprecedented for an independent not-for-profit research institute to have this type of equipment. There will be a three-pod, highly flexible robotic screening system for small molecule screening — basically $12 million worth of robots and support services — in our new institute at Burnham Lake Nona here.

When we look at what is coming up ahead, the robot pieces start to get delivered in just a few weeks, and we'll be working on that, and having that center up and running by the end of the summer. There's an example of where there will be collaborative research in the chemical genomics area between Lake Nona and La Jolla, because the center has bases at both campuses.

This is a collaboration between Burnham's East and West Coast campuses. Are there partners from other institutions involved?

We will be doing screening for assays and investigations that are led by Burnham PIs as well as externally. This will be done through one of the biggest NIH grants ever awarded, $98 million. Investigators would apply to NIH for screening funding, and then NIH assigns them to go to one of the four approved comprehensive centers in the US, of which Burnham is one. We will be doing that screening for external PIs.

Another opportunity for collaboration is right here in Orlando, the institute has established a partnership with Florida Hospital regarding a clinical research institute for studying diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Burnham looks at disease at a molecular-cellular level. We really need to have a process by which we take our information, and our discovery, and translate it through into clinical activity. And here's a great opportunity to collaborate with a health provider like Florida Hospital, which is establishing its own clinical research institute. There will be a connection from pretty much the bench to the bedside.

That's the kind of example of what we're trying to establish in Orlando. And it does have connections to Burnham in San Diego, because there are researchers there that are looking at diabetes, and have projects that are relevant to the theme that is here. We also have a connection here between a scientist working here at Burnham and the Harbor branch Oceanographic Institute. We're trying to create synthetic anti-cancer compounds by understanding some of the natural compounds that come from the sea.

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