Scripps Leads Biotech Effort in South Florida
Amongst the numerous scientists, politicos and other guests present at the Burnham’s Institute’s opening ceremonies in Orlando, there was someone quite familiar with a gala such as this. In fact, just a few months before, Harry Orf was presiding over a similar dedication just down the expressway in the town of Jupiter, when the Scripps Research Institute cut the ribbon on its own brand new three-building, 350,000-square-foot Florida campus.
Scripps Florida’s central building, which houses administrative offices, a cafeteria and an amphitheater in addition to labs and classrooms, is crowned by a symbolic interpretation of the DNA double helix.
That ceremony in February was the culmination of a marriage of opportunity that started in 2003. Richard A. Lerner, CEO of Scripps, was looking to expand the institute’s footprint, preferably on the East Coast, while then-Gov. Jeb Bush was searching for a scientific powerhouse to take the lead in Florida’s ambitious and unpredictable biotechnology development plan.
The pair met, and, although Lerner initially had thought about established locales like North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park, the idea of being a biotech trailblazer fit well with Scripps’ pioneering nature, and Lerner agreed to take the plunge.
Being the first would require strong leadership, and, in looking at his credentials, one can see why Scripps tapped Orf as operations director for its new campus. He spent more than 30 years at Harvard University and had witnessed the birth and growth of biotech in Boston; in fact, he even helped nudge it along, as he was part of a consulting company that had helped develop more than 65 startup biotech companies. Orf also brought tremendous administrative, recruiting and laboratory design experience to the fold, having served as director of the molecular biology laboratories at Massachusetts General Hospital for 20 years.
However, at the time, in 2003, Orf was serving in a different capacity: as a nuclear medicine officer in the Army Reserve who had just been called up— on two days notice— to Iraq.
“And wouldn’t you know it, I started getting job offers,” he says. First, a recruiter for the Howard Hughes Medical Institute inquired whether he would be interested in being a part of its Janelia Farm project, but they needed him to start by January 2004 at the latest, and, as he notes, “I couldn’t just call up the Army and tell them, ‘Hey, I have to go now.’ So, I had to pass on the opportunity.”