Sam Sia’s NY Biotech Incubator Already Bustling With 16 Startups

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founded Woburn, MA-based Claros Diagnostics and flipped it to Opko Health for $49 million in 2011. Sia did his PhD work at Harvard University, but has been a biomedical engineering professor at Columbia since 2005. He currently runs a 35-person lab on campus.

During his years in New York, Sia got a sense for how far behind the city is compared with established biotech hubs in Boston, San Francisco, and San Diego. New York has the research institutions, the investors, and the Big Pharma presence, but it just doesn’t have the active biotech startup culture that these other hubs do.

Part of the problem is that startups looking for lab space to grow are priced out of Manhattan, and take their ideas elsewhere. Sia, in fact, experienced this himself when he tried to start a new company in New York after selling Claros. He quickly became frustrated.

“I was just going to spend my own money and build my own lab space for my company,” he says.

This is why there’s been an outcry for incubators in the city. Outgoing Mayor Michael Bloomberg spearheaded the development of one in Brooklyn, but it’s a long ways away from the big medical institutions on Manhattan’s East and West Side. And for various reasons, no incubators have cropped up in those key areas. Sia says local universities have shied away because “it’s a little bit off the academic mission” to form an incubator that’s open to everyone. He adds that while the original mission of the Alexandria Center for Life Science on the city’s East Side was to be a biotech hub for startups, it’s so far been filled with outposts for big corporations like Eli Lilly’s ImClone unit, Pfizer, and Roche.

“I think what they’ve done is good, but there’s no startups in there,” he says.

So Sia, who has been involved with the city’s biotech development efforts for years as a faculty member, decided to take it on himself. He spoke to the New York City Economic Development Corp., a local government entity, and mapped out a vision for a Manhattan incubator with workspaces and all the necessary lab equipment that could make itself financially sustainable while charging a fee that startups could afford.

The NYCEDC had already set money aside for an incubator, so after some more discussions with Sia, it bought in and awarded him a $626,000 grant to help him get it done. This money wasn’t all handed over up front: Sia says it’s milestone-based, with several tranches spanning three to four years. Harlem Biospace still hasn’t seen the majority of it yet. That’s why Sia also put down his own money, though he won’t disclose how much.

“It was more than a token amount, let me put it that way,” he says.

Sia says that led to some of the most “complex logistics work” he’s ever done, getting architects, engineers, contractors, permits, and identifying the right location, leasing it, and ultimately remodeling and designing it.

“The biggest thing that surprised me was how much effort it was to manage a real estate project,” he says. “How much effort it was to be on budget, and on time.”

What makes it work, financially, is … Next Page »

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