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Sanford Burnham: Funding Dried Up, Leading To Takeover Plea

Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

A medical research organization that has received more than $350 million in public and private incentives says its Orlando facility's long-term outlook is in doubt because federal research funding isn't keeping pace with costs, and that's why it asked the University of Florida to take over, according to a letter its leaders sent to Gov. Rick Scott's office this week.

Officials with Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute said in the letter sent Tuesday that it has created only about four-fifths of the 303 jobs it promised a decade ago when it was lured to Orlando's Lake Nona area with hundreds of millions of dollars in economic incentives from state and local governments and the private sector.

The incentives were championed by former Gov. Jeb Bush and others, who argued the institute would diversify Florida's tourism-reliant economy.

Sanford Burnham has been a cornerstone of Orlando's developing Medical City located south of Orlando International Airport. In the span of a decade, what was once a cow pasture has become home to the Sanford Burnham facility, a VA hospital, the University of Central Florida's medical school and a University of Florida research center.

But with little growth in federal research money in the past eight years, Sanford Burnham "needed to consider new business models," the letter said.

Sanford Burnham has $45 million in cash reserves, but that not enough in the long term, officials said.

"It's a pro-active move by the institute to see what is a long-term sustainable model," Deborah Robison, Sanford Burnham's vice president of public affairs, said Wednesday.

If the deal to transfer Sanford Burnham's assets to the University of Florida isn't approved by state and local officials, institute officials said they will look for other arrangements or continue operating until they run out of money. La Jolla, California-based Sanford Burnham's Orlando facility focuses on research in diabetes and obesity.

A separate letter to the governor from University of Florida officials says the university has the resources to take over Sanford Burnham's operations. Joining the Sanford Burnham facility with the University of Florida, one of the nation's top research universities, will create a "critical mass of biomedical research under one organization" that's in a better position to fulfill the institute's original mission, the UF letter said.

Most but not all of the researchers and administrators at the Orlando facility will get job offers from the University of Florida, if the deal is approved, the Sanford Burnham letter said. Sanford Burnham will retain ownership of intellectual property developed in the past decade, though scientists under the umbrella of the University of Florida can use the intellectual property for research.