People and Companies

Lake Nona’s Medical City

Research, Treatment, Education and Commerce
Achieving Critical Mass

It has been described as “The Intersection.” A place where concepts from diverse industries, cultures and disciplines collide, producing a chain reaction of new ideas that ultimately lead to extraordinary innovations. This environment and process was described in Frans Johansson’s groundbreaking book, The Medici Effect.

This “Medici Effect” is how Thaddeus “Thad” Seymour Jr., Ph.D., vice president and general manager of Health and Life Sciences for Lake Nona’s Medical City and president of the Lake Nona Institute, describes what has been emerging in east Orlando over the past decade. The potential is staggering and is being compared to the impact that Kennedy Space Center or Walt Disney World had when they were built here in the 1960s and ‘70s, respectively.

Unlike Palm Beach County, which attracted Scripps Research Institute, the southern California biomedical researcher, Medical City represents not simply a wave, but a tsunami. Located in the 7,000-acre Lake Nona development, it is just east of the Orlando International Airport and minutes from UCF’s main campus.

The Medici family made Florence, Italy, the creative nexus of the Renaissance by bringing the greatest minds of the age together to collaborate, exchange ideas and produce some of history’s loftiest works of art, architecture, science and philosophy. Similarly, Medical City is attracting a number of the world’s brightest scientists and clinicians in an environment that combines research facilities, educational institutions, clinical treatment centers and a unique set of entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and a variety of other professionals that can translate breakthrough medical science into marketplace impact.

It is this balanced combination of research, treatment, education and commerce that has allowed Medical City to become an intersection of innovation and a global model for progress. As Seymour said, “Lake Nona is very much about moving and driving meaningful innovation and advancements, and what we learn and apply at Lake Nona will be exported to other parts of the world.”


The Partnership University

Partnership, thanks largely to the leadership of UCF President John C. Hitt, Ph.D., is now woven into the DNA of America’s second largest university and one of the leading research institutions in the country. But the UCF College of Medicine, located in Medical City, wasn’t a part of Hitt’s original vision until he discovered that, “You don’t find a biomedical cluster around anything but a medical school.” Today, not only the school, but all of UCF’s health sciences efforts, including the College of Nursing and some of its research operations have helped to make Medical City possible.

Hitt commented, “Less than a decade ago, we at UCF dreamed of creating a research-based medical college that would become the gold standard for medical education. Our bold idea had no state authorization, no funding and no friends on Facebook. According to many skeptics, we also had no business proposing such a thing. Some people called us crazy . . . and that was putting it politely.”

Today, the College of Medicine occupies a 170,000 sq. ft. state-of-the-art medical education facility, next to the 198,000 sq. ft. Burnett Biomedical Sciences Building. Pushing innovation to the next level, while attracting some of the upper echelon of young aspiring students, the College of Medicine actually provided scholarships for every member of its charter class – 41 students who started in the fall of 2009.

The impetus for its realization came from an initial $12.5 million donation and 50 acres of land given to UCF by Tavistock Group, which developed Lake Nona. The private investment organization issued a challenge to the Orlando community to help the university raise an additional $12.5 million to make it eligible for a matching state grant of $25 million. In the end, UCF received well over $100 million in donations, state-matching funds and land value to establish the new college.

Deborah C. German, M.D., vice president for Medical Affairs and dean of UCF College of Medicine, sees research and clinical practice as foundational for an effective program. “For a medical school to be a topflight institution it has to own two additional facets of its model besides teaching. It has to have a major research enterprise, where its faculty is engaging in cutting edge research and, secondly, you have to be practicing. You don’t want a faculty that practiced medicine 20 years ago or worse, never practiced at all.”

Dr. German emphasized that it is the College of Medicine’s ability to generate the kind of medical doctors and, of equal importance, Ph.D. level researchers who will continue to attract research institutions and perhaps pharmaceutical companies that will create a biomedical economy in Central Florida. [See a full interview with Dr. here]  


The Power of Synergy

Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute is one of the key research institutions that came to Medical City because of the opportunity for this cooperative approach to making breakthrough discoveries. Whereas many medical research buildings resemble top-secret NSA facilities, Sanford-Burnham’s glass-enclosed labs underscore their commitment to collaboration and may explain why they rank No. 3 in the nation among all laboratory-based life sciences research organizations in National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant funding.

Sanford-Burnham’s president and interim CEO, Kristiina Vuori, has said that the chance to be a part of a cluster and to work in proximity to a diversity of partners was the driving factor in locating to Orlando. Adding that the combination of institutions represented makes recruiting the highest caliber scientific talent much easier, as often top researchers who are able to bring grant funding also want the opportunity to teach at a medical school or engage in clinical practice part-time at a hospital.

Sanford-Burnham is a non-profit independent research organization with headquarters in La Jolla, Calif. The Institute at Lake Nona focuses its research on the metabolic origins of disease with emphasis on obesity-related diabetes and its cardiovascular complications, and houses the most advanced drug discovery technology in the nonprofit research world. Eventually, 300 Sanford-Burnham scientists and support staff will work at the $85 million research building.

The Institute is pioneering a 21st century research model that aligns basic biomedical science, translational research, and drug discovery and development. According to Dr. Daniel Kelly, scientific director of the Lake Nona site, the Institute will forge more partnerships with clinical partners and pharmaceutical companies to accelerate the development of novel therapeutics. In addition, his team is exploring innovative team-based research with clinical partners who share the mission of improving human health.


The Living Legacy

Alfred I. duPont firmly believed, “It is the duty of everyone in the world to do what is within their power to alleviate human suffering.” DuPont’s legacy of compassion has lived on for more than 70 years through the care and services provided to children and families at Nemours Children’s Hospitals and clinics.

By night, the Medical City skyline is captured by Nemours’ array of different colorful mood enhancing lights that shine through the windows of the patient rooms of the seven-story $380 million, 630,000 sq. ft. hospital, which garnered numerous awards for design. It is not only a dramatic visual enhancement, but it gives their pediatric patients the ability to add a sense of control to their environment.

Attracting some of the most outstanding physicians in the country, the clinical aspect of Medical City has moved to a new level. Nemours is deeply involved in collaborative efforts and offers an option for area medical students to fulfill their residency and possible fellowships. Also, because of its close proximity to the airport, the hospital will provide easy access for families traveling from areas both nationwide and abroad seeking care for their children.

Though initially met with resistance by some of the regional hospitals, Nemours has been able to win over  early reluctance by providing a level of specialty and expertise that was previously unavailable. John Lord, a local champion of Nemours and member of their board of directors, explained, “The fear was that we would cannibalize the skilled pediatric staff in other area hospitals or duplicate their services, but the opposite has happened. We are additive to existing services, offering care that children used to have to travel to receive. Also, we have recruited physicians from outside our area who bring skill sets and training that didn’t exist in this market.”


Serving Those Who Have Served

More than a hospital, the Orlando Veterans Affairs Medical Center is its own cluster of facilities with the largest capacity for VA outpatient services in the country. In addition to the 134-room inpatient hospital, the 65-acre LEED-certified campus will include a 120-bed hospice-based Community Living Center and 60-bed domiciliary, providing clinical rehabilitation and treatment programs for male and female veterans. It is the first VA hospital built in the United States since 1995, serving the over 1.8 million veterans living in Florida and close to 400,000 in Central Florida.

“We are not just building a building,” commented Tim Liezert, director of the Orlando VA Medical Center. “We are fundamentally changing the way we provide care to the veterans of Central Florida.” This will include pioneering work in prosthetic limbs and bionic technologies for arms, legs, eyes and brain injury treatment, post-traumatic stress disorder research, women’s health and suicide prevention.

Working with the UCF College of Medicine, the hospital will provide the opportunity for internal medicine residents to study and train, with the expectation that by 2017, up to 60 residents will work in the program. “Our internal medicine residency program will train our physicians of the future, not only on the academic skills, but also in the humanistic qualities using evidence-based, patient-centered care with a holistic approach,” said Dr. Angel Colon-Molero, deputy chief of staff at the VA Medical Center and program director of the new partnership residence program.

Driving along SR 417, observing the existing buildings and knowing others are in the planning stages, one begins to grasp the scope of the Medical City development. The VA facility alone, when it opens, will employ over 3,800 staffers.


A Gator In the Mix

Perhaps nothing communicates the gravitas of Medical City like the decision of the Gainesville-based University of Florida to locate its Research and Academic Center in Lake Nona, adjacent to the Sanford-Burnham Institute.

“The new center harnesses the resources, expertise and research capabilities of multidisciplinary teams, bringing together renowned researchers, clinicians, teachers and students with the ultimate goal of providing effective therapies and improving health for patients,” said Dr. David Guzick, M.D., Ph.D., senior vice president for health affairs and president of UF Health.

The 106,000 sq. ft. LEED-certified facility brings several colleges, institutes and centers to Medical City and will be a branch of the College of Pharmacy, with approximately 200 students enrolled in the same curriculum used on the university’s Gainesville campus. UF President Bernie Machen describes it saying, “Lake Nona Center is arguably UF’s most ambitious research facility.  We, and the other major partners at Lake Nona, put down roots not to reproduce what we already have, but to originate what we all wish for . . . research and innovation . . . that benefits society at large.”


The Minds Behind Medical City

No one person would or could take credit for Lake Nona’s Medical City, because it has been built on the collaboration, investment, hard work, generosity and the intersecting visions of community leaders in business, academia and public service. But Tavistock Group founder Joe Lewis and their top executives have brought these often divergent groups together as a unified force.

Lewis, rated by Forbes as the ninth wealthiest person in the UK, started out in the catering business. He grew up in the business and built his Hanover Grand into a top hospitality company, selling it in 1979 to make his initial fortune. However, it was in currency trading where Lewis moved into the ranks of the super-rich. Lewis owns a large portfolio of over 200 companies in 15 countries from sports teams, restaurants, life sciences, finance and energy, to some of the most exclusive resort properties, hotels, private clubs and master-planned communities in the world.

Central Florida is simply fortunate enough to become the focus of one of Lewis’ most altruistic endeavors and to have the regional leadership with the vision and fortitude to help bring it to pass. Tavistock purchased Lake Nona from a previous investor, but it was the Tavistock team that turned the large real estate parcel into not only an emerging research hub, but a master planned and strategically designed community.

The 7,000 acres of Lake Nona itself is an example of the convergence of the latest design principles, environmental sensitivity and smart growth features. The development integrates Medical City into a community that includes numerous new schools, from Pre-K through graduate level, venues for shopping and dining, world class golf and recreational amenities, in addition to having the kind of Internet bandwidth that would make Tokyo jealous.

As stated earlier, research, treatment, education and commerce are the four elements of a dynamic and successful bioresearch hub. To ensure this final component of commerce is well supported, Lake Nona has launched development of its Innovation Center. The three-story, 92,000 sq. ft., LEED-certified building will house biotech companies, digital developers as well as some of the best examples of visionary partnerships, including UCF’s Biotech Business Incubator and Florida Blue’s Collaborative Imagination Center. Located in the center of Medical City, the Innovation Center will establish a center of gravity for health and life sciences that will take advantage of the exceptional research, health care and technology capabilities at Lake Nona, Seymour explained. In addition, the building will provide much needed laboratory and incubation space to accelerate the formation and growth of the life sciences commercial sector of our economy, creating high quality new jobs and significant value creation for decades to come.


It Takes a Team

The core of Lake Nona’s leadership team includes Seymour, who is considered the “chief of innovation” and works to ensure the business ventures and Medical City’s scientific institutions realize their full potential for collaboration.

Rasesh “Sesh” Thakkar is senior managing director of Tavistock Group. A UCF graduate, Thakkar has worked with Joe Lewis for over 20 years and Lake Nona represents a culmination of Tavistock’s entrepreneurial drive, creativity, savvy, and long-term view and dedication to excellence. “In the last six years, we have had active construction of more than $2 billion with more than 2 million square feet of clinical, education and research space completed or underway at Lake Nona,” he said, “and we’ve just gotten started.”

The third member of the Tavistock triumvirate is James Zboril, president of Tavistock Development Company. When Zboril joined Tavistock over nine years ago, nothing was developed south of the Lake Nona Golf and Country Club. Now, Zboril manages the development as well as the mixed-use community around the core of Medical City and was one of the voices that encouraged a long-term, maximum value approach to Lake Nona’s in-fill.

According to Zboril, “We see Lake Nona Medical City growing in diverse and meaningful ways, with the health and life science cluster continuing to blossom and attract institutions that see the synergistic benefit of being so physically close to so many top-tier facilities and talent. And all this sits adjacent to Orlando International Airport – the third busiest in the U.S. As the major hospitals and educational facilities have been and are being completed, the thousands of employees and visitors will drive demand for additional commercial, office, retail, and residential projects at Lake Nona.”


A Conversation with Deborah C. German, M.D., vice president for Medical Affairs and dean of UCF College of Medicine

What attracted you to being part of the beginning of UCF College of Medicine? 

I had the opportunity to be involved in a number of medical colleges that were in their initial stage, but I was looking for a new challenge. This was more than building a medical school; there are 7,000 acres of land here along with a developer who wanted to build a ‘Medical City’ but realized the only way to attract the various components of a medical research cluster was to anchor it with a medical school.


Why is that?

For a medical school to be a topflight institution, it has to own two additional facets of its model besides teaching. It has to have a major research enterprise, where its faculty is engaging in cutting edge research. If you have a faculty that is teaching a subject like history, the topic of the Civil War isn’t going to change dramatically in the next five years. But if you are teaching something like “How to Treat Asthma,” every year there is a new discovery. In order to be teaching at the state-of-the-art level, you have to be researching, and secondly you have to be practicing; you don’t want a faculty that practiced medicine 20 years ago or worse, never practiced at all.


And a “Medical City” provides this environment?  

The best analogy I can give is that of a shopping mall. If you want to build a large mall, it has to have numerous specialty stores, but if you only have those specialty stores it will never take off. You also have to have a Neiman Marcus or a Macy’s that are the anchor tenants which sell virtually everything. Medical City has both research components and hospitals where medicine is practiced; what they need is a constant influx of talent to staff each of the constituent elements that make up Medical City, which the College of Medicine supplies.

We not only train physicians, but also Ph.D. scientists at our College of Medicine. This is one aspect that doesn’t get talked about as much. These young scientists work with our senior scientists to push the envelope of discovery.

This research is being done in the Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences building, as well as facilities on the main campus of UCF, where we train all of our undergraduate students. Graduate students take up to another four to seven years and once they graduate, they are the personnel who will lead the research at places like Sanford-Burnham. They also may do research in the pharmaceutical industry to create new drugs or to study things like diabetes. The medical schools perform both functions of training physicians and researchers.


So if you have this type of personnel, you have the type of workforce that could attract, say, a major pharmaceutical company to the area.

You have just answered the question of why you can’t build a Medical City without a great medical school, which does both research and patient care, as an anchor. Why would a drug company want to come here, instead of another location, if they didn’t think that there was a large pool of young people who were being trained and graduated every year and they would have the pick of the cream of that crop for their workforce? If they came here and there was no medical school they would have to import those people from other institutions. We provide a world class workforce for the type of industries we are trying to attract.

We have at least 30 research faculty at our college, all of which are doing cutting edge research in cardiovascular disease, neuroscience, infectious disease, immunology and cancer.  They get research grants and hire their staff and basically spend those grant dollars right here in Central Florida, adding to the vibrant economic health of the community.

The research results in patents and the patents can spin off into new companies. Insurance providers are drawn here because they want to study their patient population so they can provide better quality and better efficiency with the dollars they have to spend.


What is the most exciting, emerging focus of study on the horizon – Nanoscience, genetics, what?

That is like asking someone to choose between 10 children. I simply can’t do that; there are breakthroughs occurring every day in genetics, in simulation and in other technologies. Medicine is exploding right now and to select one as being the most disruptive one in the future is impossible to say. I would love to be here 50 years from now, because the world will look as different 50 years from now as it looks today compared to 150 years  ago. We are accelerating that fast.


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