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FIU joining Cleveland Clinic and Vaxine at former VGTI lab

 Written by:

George Andreassi 

Florida International University scientists will join Cleveland Clinic and Vaxine Limited researchers at the former Vaccine & Gene Therapy Institute Florida laboratory in western Port St. Lucie.

FIU’s intention to occupy part of the 108,000-square-foot high-tech lab at 9801 SW Discovery Way was disclosed during Monday night’s City Council meeting.

“Florida International University will co-occupy the building with Cleveland Clinic and Vaxine and there may be other researchers as well,” City Manager Russ Blackburn told the council. “So, all of a sudden we’ve got this synergy.”

The council voted unanimously to approve a 15-year lease with Cleveland Clinic Florida for the VGTI lab for $1 per year with an option to buy the building for $14.5 million. The second and final vote on the deal is set for Nov. 12.

“I’m optimistic Cleveland Clinic’s reputation and brand will attract other prestigious medical research organizations to our community to create this new pillar of economic growth,” Rob Lord, president and CEO of Cleveland Clinic’s Martin Health System, told the council.

Cleveland Clinic anticipates taking control of the building shortly after the final vote, Lord said after Monday’s vote. It will be the Clinic’s only research facility outside of the Lerner Institute in Cleveland.

But Lord said he could not disclose details about the negotiations with FIU.

“It’s still in the formative stages,” Lord said. “We’re still working on that.”

FIU already leases space in neighboring Torrey Pines Institute for Molecular Studies and offered in May to acquire the 100,000-square-foot laboratory and office building at 11350 SW Village Parkway.

The proximity of the three major facilities in the Tradition Center for Innovation helped foster relationships that led to the partnerships, Lord and Blackburn said.

Torrey Pines Institute sits between the former VGTI lab and Cleveland Clinic Tradition Hospital. Cleveland Clinic acquired the hospital as part of its takeover of Martin Health System on Jan. 1.

“Everybody knows everybody in town, so we started connecting the dots and said, ‘We should sit down and talk,’” Lord said. “And that led to additional discussions.”

City officials pitched the idea of Cleveland Clinic taking over VGTI during a celebration of the Clinic’s acquisition of Martin Health System and Tradition Medical Center.

Dr. Joseph Ianotti, Cleveland Clinic Florida’s chief of staff and chief innovation officer, accepted Blackburn’s invitation to tour the lab.

“At the time, Cleveland Clinic had no interest in doing research outside of Cleveland – none whatsoever,” Blackburn said.

After touring the high-tech lab and seeing its potential, Blackburn said, “Dr. Ianotti said he would try to find a way that Cleveland Clinic could perhaps partner with the city.”

Cleveland Clinic submitted an offer in May and announced its partnership with Vaxine Limited, of Perth, Australia, in July.

Vaxine Limited, the largest offshore recipient of National Institutes of Health funding, will conduct research and establish its North American headquarters in the high-tech lab.

As part of the deal, Cleveland Clinic and Vaxine Limited agreed to hire 100 research scientists and support staff in five years with a total payroll of $8.3 million.

“We believe the most important thing for us at this point is we need high-paying jobs,” Blackburn said.

The sale price will be reduced by roughly $1 million for each year Cleveland Clinic meets its hiring goals. The city will give Cleveland Clinic the building for free if it hires 200 employees with a total payroll of $17.7 million, records show. Cleveland Clinic will pay more than $1.5 million in annual assessments and property taxes on the VGTI building, which the city marketed as the Florida Center for Bio-Science.

The city backed $60 million in bonds used to build the high-tech lab for VGTI in 2012. But the institute defaulted on the bonds and closed in 2015 after losing federal health research grants. Port St. Lucie took over the building in August 2017 and had been marketing it ever since.

“One of the reasons the VGTI building wasn’t successful is we don’t have a research university,” Blackburn said. “Well, now we’ve got Cleveland Clinic, which is one of the largest nonprofit research institutions in the world with the Lerner Institute in Cleveland. And you get FIU. So it’s a paradigm change for Port St. Lucie.”

To view the original article on the St. Lucie Voice website, please click here.

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