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UF-Burnham Plan Likely Faces More Questions

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.

Gov. Rick Scott has yet to be sold on a proposal for the University of Florida to take over a taxpayer-backed biotech operation in Orlando that a decade ago was supposed to help spark a research revolution in the state.
Scott's staff continues to review the proposal, which would have the Gainesville-based university run the Sanford Burnham Medical Institute facility at Orlando's Lake Nona, and he may have more questions about the transfer, Scott spokeswoman Jackie Schutz said.

"Right now we're just trying to understand the impact to the state, understand how it will impact the university system in Florida," Schutz said.

The Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute, which includes the Orlando facility and a research facility in La Jolla, Calif., responded to a series of questions from the governor's office. It said the proposed deal came about as Sanford Burnham was not able to reach employment and facility goals set nearly a decade ago when it was attracted to expand east from California.

"SBP (Sanford Burnham Prebys) will continue operations at Lake Nona until a viable alternative arrangement is approved, or until the available funding resources are exhausted," Sanford Burnham said in its response.

A slowdown in research funding has been listed as a cause of the research organization's financial situation.

The questions from the governor's office were posed following a brief meeting May 19 between Scott and University of Florida President Kent Fuchs at the Capitol. The meeting had been quickly arranged after the transfer proposal became public.

"We've just learned about it," Schutz said Thursday.

Sanford Burnham agreed to meet targets for hiring and spending when it was offered more than $300 million in state and local incentives to open a facility in Orlando. It says it has reached about 78 percent of the 303 jobs that were supposed to be created by June 30 and has made $61 million in required equipment purchases.

About $13 million remains available in reserves for future equipment purchases and approximately $1.5 million is in the hands of the state, Sanford Burnham said in its response.

The incentive money was part of the approximately $1.3 billion spent a decade ago by state and local governments to grow biotech research in Florida, an effort that hasn't materialized as envisioned.

The conservative-advocacy group Americans for Prosperity said Sanford Burnham's financial situation highlights the group's opposition to the state providing business-recruitment incentives handled by the public-private Enterprise Florida.

"These most recent findings are further proof that Enterprise Florida and other entities that roll out taxpayer dollars should cease to exist," Americans for Prosperity State Director Chris Hudson said. "When government picks winners and losers, taxpayers are on the hook for the inevitable losses these failed programs have produced."

Still, despite possible concerns raised in the questions from the governor's office, the University of Florida, in its own written responses, expressed confidence that it can handle taking over the Lake Nona operations.

"The University of Florida is convinced that, given its proximity to Orlando, research success, and mission of service to the entire state of Florida, it is better positioned than SBP for this endeavor," the university advised Scott.

The university noted that it annually draws more than $700 million in research awards compared to $100 million that Burnham gets for both its Lake Nona and La Jolla operations.

"UF has a deep pool of potential collaborators that reside two hours away by car versus 2,100 miles by plane as is the case for the SBP main campus in La Jolla," the university said in its response to Scott. "The ability to build collaborative teams between the Gainesville and Lake Nona faculty strengthens the competitiveness of efforts at both locations."

UF also believes the Orlando location will help in recruiting research faculty.

The university and Sanford Burnham have already negotiated a deal on the intended transfer, which must get approval from the UF Board of Trustees and the state university system's Board of Governors.

Sanford Burnham Prebys hopes to make the changes by June 30, according to its response.

Also, the university must hammer out agreements with the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, Orlando, Orange County, and the Lake Nona Land Company on the Lake Nona building, land, assets and residual funds for continued operation as a biomedical research facility.

A review is underway to determine if the Legislature, which funds the university, would also have to approve the deal.

Not everyone currently working at Sanford Burnham would join the university faculty.

The school noted that severance packages would be made available to those not offered positions and a six-month transition period may be afforded some researchers who don't make the switch but need to continue their research at the Lake Nona campus.