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

Xconomy New York — 

It was less than a year ago when Columbia University professor and entrepreneur Samuel Sia sat on an airplane sketching out the floor plan for a biotech incubator in the middle of Manhattan. That vision is now becoming real.

Sia is the co-founder of Harlem Biospace, a new biotech incubator on 127th Street in Manhattan’s West Harlem. The incubator officially opened just a month ago, on Nov. 1, and Sia said it has already become profitable. Sia wouldn’t disclose just what the final revenue and profit figures are from the first six weeks of operation, but scientists from 16 local startups occupy 22 of its 24 workstations. Each workstation goes for a list price of $995 per month.

“I think it really validates that there’s huge demand for this kind of stuff,” he says. “There are companies and people here that nobody knew about. But once the space was here, then they came out and said you know, I want to give it a try.”

Samuel Sia, co-founder of Harlem Biospace

Samuel Sia, co-founder of Harlem Biospace

Local medical oncologist Michael Tirgan, for instance, is developing treatments for keloid disorder, a skin condition, with his startup, Tirgan Biopharmaceuticals. For him, the brainstorming between entrepreneurs in the facility, and the connections he’s getting by being there, have been more valuable than the actual space he’s working in.

“With the help I’m getting here, I’ll be able to fund this work sooner or later,” he says.

Columbia graduate student Tyler Poore is another resident entrepreneur. His startup, Exsponge, is developing antimicrobial polymers. Poore says that he’d been thinking about a startup for a long time, but didn’t want to do it within Columbia, and didn’t have the financial backing yet to support, say, a five-year lease for wet lab space in the city.

“It’s pretty cheap, which is good for smaller companies who are pre-Series A funding like we are; it’s close to Columbia, so we have facilities; plus we have the network at Columbia at too, so we can talk to people there about research aspects as well,” Poore says.

The monthly fee is each scientist’s only cost. It gives them access to a desk, lab equipment, wet lab space, and legal help from biotech lawyers (WilmerHale is a sponsor) if needed. Harlem Biospace is also adding classes about biotech entrepreneurship that it plans to stream online, according to Sia.

Harlem Biospace doesn’t take any equity in these startups.

Entrepreneurs have to apply for the space, and set out milestones for what they’d like to achieve in the near term. Each application is then reviewed by an advisory board of venture capitalists (New Leaf Venture Partners, OrbiMed Advisors), representatives from pharmaceutical companies (GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson), and others.

If they’re selected, each scientist has to commit to work in the space for at least six months. The idea is that each scientist would be ready to move out into a bigger location in no more than three years, but Sia concedes that’s “flexible.”

“We just want to see, you’ve thought about this, and you’re making progress,” he says.

All of this came together in less than a year for Sia, the Columbia professor who 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 the space. Harlem Biospace signed a 10-year lease for a 2,000-square-foot floor in what’s known as the Sweets Building in West Harlem. The space was last used as an office for the U.S. Census Bureau. It may seem cramped—LabCentral, the incubator in Cambridge, MA, just opened a 28,000 square foot facility by comparison—but Sia contends it’s equipped with what a one or two-person biotech startup needs. This is an incubator for biotech startups of the earliest stage. Those that, as Sia says, are taking “baby steps” out of a university, or an idea, and need a place to begin working. Once they progress, get funding, and need to take the next step, they’ll move on.

“When you’re a startup, you’re not doing experiments 24/7,” he says. “You plan for some key experiments, you certainly need space to store stuff, access to equipment, but you don’t necessarily need to have your own dedicated everything. That’s not how biotech startups spend their time.”

Sia even signed up for the first two spots to give his new company, Junco Labs, a space to grow.

“That’s why I’m doing this, it’s a 10 minute walk from my lab,” he says.

Here’s a rundown of the other 14 companies that have set up shop in Harlem Biospace, and what they’re developing:

Dual Therapeutics: small molecule cancer drugs that activate the tumor suppressor protein phosphophatase 2A.

Cytodel: proprietary formulations of botulinum neurotoxins.

Ex Vivo Dynamics: technology designed to help reduce complications from blood transfusions.

Girihlet: mitochondrial DNA-based biomarkers for cancer and certain development disorders.

Immunovent: a diagnostic test to detect allergies that can go unseen by traditional allergy testing methods.

—Junco Labs: hand-held “lab on a chip” devices that perform rapid diagnostic tests.

OncoStem Biotherapeutics: cancer drugs targeting tumor drivers that aren’t targeted by current therapies.

—Primary Cell: a technique to cryogenically preserve nerve cells.

—Rho Nanodiagnostics: osteoarthritis treatments that stimulate cartilage cell growth.

AfriVax: a startup contract research organization that develops gene-based products like vaccines, proteins, and engineered antibodies.

InVivo Analytics: medical imaging technologies for small animals.

—Mirna Analytics: Personalized service that helps researchers measure microRNA in body fluids.

Multimodal Solutions: small molecule cancer drugs.

—Symbiotic Health: microbiome-based drugs and diagnostics.