Creating a Life Science Nexus
By Eric Wright
Though visions may be conceived in the hearts and minds of an individual, they are only realized in the cooperative synergy generated by committed leaders, who in turn are willing to commit their resources to its realization.
Thad Seymour, one of the thought leaders credited with the development of Lake Nona’s Medical City, likes to use the term “Medici Effect” when describing these geographically focused alliances and their ability to spawn creative, scientific and economic multipliers. Coined by Frans Johansson, the Swedish/American writer, it describes the collaborative environment the Medici family facilitated in Florence and throughout Italy during the Italian Renaissance.
IQ Orlando, though it is at a formative stage, is one such example and purposes to create what has been described as “an innovation-focused business partnership concentrated on recruiting and launching life science companies.” Harnessing the collective resources and influence of the University of Central Florida, Tavistock Group, Florida Hospital, AHG Group and others in the future, it could economically redefine Central Florida.
“I honestly don’t look at the medical complex at Lake Nona as ‘Medical City.’ Though that is how others have branded us since we are home to some of the region’s most vital life science resources, UCF’s Medical School, Nemours, the VA Medical Center and Sanford Burnham, etc. Instead, I think of all of Orlando as ‘Medical City,’ because there is such a concentration of institutions and expertise in the region,” Rasesh Thakkar said. An interesting statement coming from the CEO of Tavistock Financial Corporation and the managing director of Tavistock Group, which oversees the Lake Nona project.
However, seeing all of Orlando as a “Medical City” is the perspective of all the key collaborators making up IQ Orlando. Together they are methodically laying a foundation and are laser focused on their vision to accelerate the development of Central Florida as a global center for healthcare and life sciences, by ensuring all the elements are working in partnership to make sure this cluster flourishes. These include research and development, facilities, capital funding, training and education, economic development and clinical validation.
Let It Happen or Make It Happen?
“We want to provide a structure for the development of this sector. Looking at other tech clusters or innovation hubs across the U.S., some things happen organically, but where there is a coming together of resources and leadership with a strategy, those areas really accelerate and gain momentum,” Rick Wassel, IQ Orlando’s executive director observed.
Historically, from Detroit’s auto industry, to Los Angeles being synonymous with film and television production, one can see how there is often a natural phenomena of magnet industries spawning business clusters. But another more deliberate and purposeful pattern can be seen in Bangalore, India, known as India’s Silicon Plateau or “Keep It Weird” Austin, along with the recent efforts of Tony Hsieh, Zappos CEO’s $350 million initiative to revitalize downtown Las Vegas. The strategic alignment of private, public and the independent sectors to form far reaching strategic objectives and alliances, more often than not, is what carries the day.
The genesis of IQ Orlando in many ways began with Florida Hospital’s CEO Lars Houmann, who while being a part of different local economic development organizations (EDO), visited several cities to observe best practices and see what could be sown in the Orlando community. “Due to our community’s imagination and collaboration, there is a tremendous convergence of opportunities in the life sciences, biotechnology and healthcare sector.” The area had five existing core competencies beyond tourism and hospitality and included healthcare and life sciences. As the EDOs were working to elevate these areas, he realized the leaders in each sector were somewhat siloed and unaware of what others were doing outside their own businesses and institutions. “What was needed in the life sciences and healthcare sector was a convening organization focused on developing and building the cluster, much like the National Center for Simulation and General Tom Baptiste have done for our MS&T cluster,” Houmann explained.
To understand the potential, one might consider the Nashville Health Care Council, founded in 1995. Formed to establish Nashville as “the nation’s healthcare capital,” today healthcare is Nashville’s largest and fastest growing employer. It has an overall economic benefit of more than $30 billion and 200,000 jobs annually. Additionally, the region is home to more than 250 healthcare companies that represent diverse segments of the industry. Contained in that number are 55 companies headquartered in Nashville that generate approximately 400,000 jobs and $62 billion in revenue worldwide.
Magnetic Attraction & Geometric Progression
“Through our research, we found that once one or more large companies plant themselves in an area and put down roots, they bring resources, leadership and talent. This attracts other companies like a magnet and it spins off small to midsize companies into that ecosystem,” Wassel observed. “Part of our purpose in convening these four large organizations is they could perhaps serve as that anchor which attracts and spins off others, though each organization realizes they couldn’t do this on their own. Each were already doing outstanding work in this space and we wanted to see if collectively we could identify gaps and opportunities.”
Florida Hospital had a longstanding relationship with Alan Ginsberg of AHG Group and his family, as did UCF. “We wanted someone locally who had experience in this space,” Wassel explained. “His organization was already vetting and sourcing early to mid-stage companies in Europe, Russia and Israel, looking for unique and disruptive companies. Healthcare and life science is of personal and professional interest to Mr. Ginsberg; he is a man who wants to do well as an investor, by doing good.”
Ginsberg, who is legendary in the area for his generous donations to Florida Hospital and UCF’s College of Medicine, built his business in real estate development, primarily in the multi-family affordable housing sector. “The AHG Sciences Group is one of our core areas and it is the one I spend most of my time in,” Ginsberg said.
“We seek out those fellow entrepreneurs, who have the next best invention that is going to better the world, and we act as financiers. We vet them to the best of our ability and if I like it, I make a personal investment. I have a few fundamental operating criteria: Number one is, does the product help mankind? Secondly, will it be profitable? This isn’t a philanthropic investment. Finally, we wanted companies that would locate some aspect of the operation in the Central Florida area. Everyone involved in IQ Orlando brings a different ingredient or expertise, but we all share the same focus.”
“I treasure my relationship with Florida Hospital and with UCF. So I went to Florida Hospital and inquired if they had an investment arm that was interested in some of the life science technology I was considering. They said, ‘Yes we do, as a matter of fact, we are working with UCF on it.’ Then I went to Dr. Hitt, whom I deeply respect and he said the same thing and added they were working with Joe Lewis of Tavistock. It fell together and could at some time expand to other partners and to other regions.”
Raising the Collaborative Quotient
“Central Florida is the most collaborative region I believe in the country, and collaboration is the essence of what IQ Orlando is all about,” Thakkar observed.
“Recently we hosted a reception for a large company that is considering this area for relocation. We had their top executives here, but we also had both mayors, the CEO of the EDC, the president of the Central Florida Partnership and the executive director from the airport. Those representatives, who were from a major metropolitan city said, ‘This just doesn’t happen where we are from.’ The cooperative approach that enabled Orlando to build the downtown venues, during a recession, put us on the map as the envy of several cities that are the same size or larger.”
When discussions focus on the collaborative spirit that is part of the DNA of Central Florida, UCF’s President Dr. John Hitt is usually in the conversation. IQ Orlando is no exception. “I had the good fortune to be sitting with Lars Houmann and we were discussing how we could accelerate high tech and bio medical development in Central Florida,” Dr. Hitt recalled. “He laid out the idea he was hatching for IQ Orlando and it really resonated with me.
“Medical City is fantastic, but it is only part of what we need to do and can do in the region, and our challenge is how can we fill the gap between these various centers of inquiry and innovation? If I am trying to hire a top researcher from say John Hopkins in Baltimore, this person may have a partner in the same or similar field and it is a lot easier to recruit the couple if there is a depth of opportunity here. You don’t want one to be stranded professionally, while another flourishes.
“A great example that is close to home was what happened when the steel industry collapsed in Birmingham, Alabama. The region lost thousands of jobs. They replaced those jobs in the biomedical arena around the University of Alabama Birmingham (UAB). I think they ended up with a net positive in job gains; it has raised the quality of medical care statewide and they have become a major research center. There are similar clusters in Atlanta and Houston, as well as Nashville. None of the obstacles here are insurmountable; we have three challenges: attract, retain and grow.”
Seymour, whose PhD is in history, recently observed, “In the 19th century, New York was arguably the economic epicenter of the nation. In the 20th century, it moved to California. It is possible that in the 21st century, that epicenter of growth and innovation could be Florida.” If it is, IQ Orlando could be one factor in its realization.