A Band of Postdocs Pursues a New York Biotech Dream in Harlem

For years, life science innovators in New York City have pounded tables in frustration at the Big Apple’s inability to form a biotech cluster despite all of its financial and institutional might. The problem, they’ve been saying for years, is there just isn’t an inexpensive, convenient way for entrepreneurs to conduct lab experiments in one of the most densely populated, expensive cities to live in the world.

Solving this, of course, is no easy task. It’s hard enough to find a fairly-priced one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan, let alone thousands of affordable square feet to run a few cell lines. But a group of postdoctoral researchers at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, on Manhattan’s upper east side, think they’ve found a way.

Nicole McKnight, Ilse Daehn, Gabriella Casalena, and Merina Varghese, (pictured below) have banded together to form the Keystone for Incubating Innovation in Life Sciences – NYC, or “KiiLN,” for short (a fifth co-founder, Yana Zorina, now works at Acorda Therapeutics as a cell biologist). KiiLN has two main goals: first, to bring cheap lab space to prospective life sciences entrepreneurs in the big city. Second, to foster the New York biotech innovation community and provide a forum for networking, mentorship, and even support services such as accounting and legal advice.

“There’s money, there are really bright people here, there’s great science, these great institutions—there’s this sense that New York should and will become the third hub for this,” McKnight says, referencing the top two biotech hubs—Boston and San Francisco. “But there’s one thing keeping it from happening, and we feel pretty strongly that it’s incubator space is missing.”

KiiLN isn’t the first group to try to change that. Samuel Sia, an associate professor at Columbia University, is only months away from opening up a small incubator in West Harlem known as Harlem Biospace. KiiLN, however, contends the two can, and should coexist, and that the New York biotech community will be better for it. Harlem Biospace, McKnight says, will be a good place for “small, very early stage startups with minimum requirements,” while KiiLN is hatching something larger, and more flexible—a “step-up incubator” for entrepreneurs expanding their companies beyond one or two people, and whose needs grow accordingly.

“We are confident that the New York City biotech community recognizes the need for multiple-sized incubators that can coexist and contribute to the creation of a dynamic and nurturing environment for startups,” McKnight says. “Harlem Biospace will be a great case study for us, and for New York City, and we wish them lots of success.”

The idea for KiiLN came out of an entrepreneurship-themed postdoctoral symposium at Mount Sinai that McKnight and Daehn ran in September. At the event, the two were inspired by a speech given by Marc Tessier-Lavigne, the renowned neuroscientist, former Genentech executive, president of New York’s Rockefeller University, and co-founder of the New York Genome Center. The gist of his talk was that there should be more collaborations between academia and large pharmaceutical companies in the city.

“He gave this really inspirational talk about the future of drug development and biotech in New York, and how he sees it as a positive thing and a great place for this to happen,” McKnight says. “He said one of the big needs is lab space in New York. He called for that.”

From Left: Daehn, Casalena, Varghese, and McKnight in East Harlem

McKnight, Daehn, and their friends and fellow scientists Casalena, Varghese, and Zorina kept that thought in mind a few months later when they were taking part in a newly-minted program set up by the Icahn school’s Center for Technology, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship dubbed the “Q.E.D. Project”—a micro MBA class of sorts, in which students are tasked over the full course of an academic year with identifying a problem, inventing a solution for it, and communicating their idea in a compelling way to investors. The group decided to tackle the city’s big biotech innovation problem, searching for a way to stop promising ideas originating in New York research and academic centers from either stalling, or getting shipped out to different locations to create companies where the real estate is cheaper.

“We’re losing the talent,” Daehn says. “Because of the inaccessibility of space and the expense, scientists are forced to take their technologies out of New York.”

So they hatched the idea for KiiLN, with this plan in mind: an incubation center of between 10,000 and 30,000 square feet that would serve as a multi-purpose facility for seedling startups to run experiments, share office space, meet with venture capitalists, and hash out the logistics of turning their ideas into real companies. KiiLN would also cater to companies needing “hotelling,” or occasional access to incubator facilities, according to McKnight. And KiiLN would accomplish this by raising about $3 million to rent out a space right in its own backyard—smack in the middle of East Harlem.

“The main core of it would be wet lab space built like we work in—and we know what we need—and enough to allow companies to grow,” McKnight says. “If we have a nice, clean space that doesn’t need to be gutted and rebuilt, which is our model, we think we need about $3 million.”

This is a little trickier than usual, given that KiiLN is setting itself up as a non-profit organization, and is thus looking for donations—not investment money. KiiLN plans to meet with representatives of the city, the state, and look to initiatives such as the New York City Economic Development Corp., local organizations, and even the pharmaceutical industry to help get the project off the ground. Daehn says KiiLN will likely have to forge a partnership with a major institution to help it get access to core lab equipment, or a big time developer to help navigate the New York real estate market and build out the lab space, to proceed with its plans. Daunting as it seems, KiiLN is encouraged by the support it’s gotten so far.

“We’ve got a growing list of people who are on board,” McKnight says.

The benefits of location, as any New Yorker would say, are significant. East Harlem shoots up from East 96th Street, bracketed on the left side by Fifth Avenue, which hugs the eastern wall of Central Park. It’s stone’s throw away from Mount Sinai, a short cab ride from Columbia University or Rockefeller University, has a key train stop—125th street—to the metro-north railroad line out of the city (as well as the express subway train to Wall Street), and is a quick drive away from LaGuardia Airport in Queens. McKnight says, for instance, that location is a “huge problem” for the only operational biotech incubator in the NY metropolitan area, located at the SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, because of how far away it is from a lot of the city’s big biomedical research institutions. By comparison, East Harlem represents an opportunity to grab space within close proximity to all of the research centers on New York’s East Side.

“We’ve identified East Harlem as the last semi-affordable part of Manhattan, and it’s not going to be that way for very long either,” she says. “We’ve got to do this now.”

The Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, on the south side of East Harlem

While the KiiLN group, working independently from Mount Sinai, won’t disclose the specific location it has in mind, Daehn says that the area consists of two top floors in a building that comprise somewhere in the range of 10,000 square feet. That space also possesses air rights, giving KiiLN the possibility of expanding upward.

“We are flirting with that one because of the potential,” she says.

The idea, of course, is still in its infancy. KiiLN has built little more than its name, its concept, and an early form website. It has yet to raise the money that it needs, and is in the process of filing its 501(c)(3) tax exemption application to become a non-profit organization, and building customer and partnership relationships necessary to set up the incubator. But here are the logistics of the plan it has in mind.

KiiLN’s 10,000-square-foot space would provide space for as many as 20 companies. That incubator would be flexible. For example, if a larger group of six people could pay a little bit more, they could have a private, lockable lab. On the other hand, an individual or two-person startup could have access to a lab bench and shared equipment like centrifuges, tissue culturehoods, and other items, while also having their own smaller lockable storage space. The incubator would have an auditorium to hold seminars and community gatherings, while providing key scientific materials like buffers, or chemical stocks, so that startups wouldn’t have to run out and buy them.

“We really want to bring down the costs for these startups,” McKnight says.

KiiLN wouldn’t take equity in the companies that it helps. Rather, it would primarily get revenue by renting out the space to each startup at a “very competitive price per square foot,” according to McKnight. KiiLN is also considering the idea of fees for services, like a technician coming in to maintain a cell line, or annual membership fees which would give people access to all of its networking events and seminars. It wants to get not just people, but local institutions, medical centers, and schools involved as members to learn about startups and work together.

“It kind of gives the people the feel that they belong and that this is part of their effort,” Daehn says.

If the idea sounds familiar, it’s because KiiLN has a good relationship with LabCentral, the non-profit organization bringing an incubator to Cambridge, MA. LabCentral is scheduled to open in November—as is Harlem Biospace.

“A lot of our ideas really align with them,” she says of LabCentral. “It’s funny- we came up with this idea on our own, but they’re really trying to do something very similar. And what we’re really encouraged by is the need for that even in Cambridge.”

In the meantime, McKnight says KiiLN is building a “virtual” incubator on its website to build a breathing community of young life sciences entrepreneurs from the city, setting up webinars, online discussion rooms, and ways to offer help to innovators looking for advice. The idea is to truly keep the concept alive and create awareness while KiiLN works to get to the point of a ribbon-cutting ceremony somewhere north of East 96th.

“We want it to be a resource and keep the name of KiiLN alive,” Daehn says. “So when the doors open and people really know what we’re up to, there is a sense of community and everyone is a part of it.”

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