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Versant Walks Biotech “High Line” With a New Manhattan Incubator

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“infrastructure initiative” underway to battle the city’s lab space problem. Accelerator, a 12-year-old incubator that has seeded Seattle with several startups, opened up a New York branch last year. Manhattan’s first biotech incubator, Harlem Biospace, started up in 2013, adding to one already up and running in Brooklyn. As Flagship CEO Noubar Afeyan told me earlier this year, there’s a sense among the city’s research institutions—places like Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Weill Cornell, Rockefeller University and others—that they are “under leveraged” in the startup world.

Rizzuto had similar thoughts: “We’ve found we like being in an atypical geography, and this really seemed like an untapped opportunity.”

There’s still a long way to go. Despite being in the top tier in National Institutes of Health grants every year, New York academic institutions still draw a fraction of the venture dollars enjoyed by their counterparts in Boston and San Francisco. And there hasn’t been the lab space or the experienced biotech company creators in place to create a thriving startup culture.

To solve the experience problem, Rizzuto says he aims to convince some New York “ex-pats”—biotech pros who grew up or studied in and around the city but moved off to Boston or San Francisco—to come back.

He also claims that 100,000 square feet of commercial lab space should be available in Manhattan starting next year. The Alexandria Center for Life Science on the East Side is building out more floors, Harlem Biospace is expanding,  and two other initiatives are underway “that collectively should add about another 40,000 square feet,” he says (without identifying them).

What’s more, many of the new leaders at New York’s research centers are biopharma veterans. Mark Tessier-Lavigne is president of Rockefeller and spent many year’s as a top Genentech scientist. Craig Thompson is the president of Sloan-Kettering, and a founder of Agios Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: AGIO). And Laurie Glimcher is the dean of Weill Cornell, and has been a board member of Bristol-Myers Squibb for almost two decades.

But the industry savvy of New York’s top academic researchers isn’t necessarily the cure-all for the city’s biotech drought. When Arch, Flagship, and Tessier-Lavigne—all with big vested interests in building the New York scene—teamed up to launch a massively funded neuroscience startup, Denali Therapeutics, they located it in San Francisco, not New York.

The Denali example is an unfair bar to set, however, for Highline, because Versant’s modus operandi tends to be to start small. That type of modest scale might be the right fit for New York these days.

“There’s no doubt it’s far, far less mature than Boston or San Francisco, but the city has actually been quite effective in catalyzing a number of things on the biotech front,” Rizzuto says.

Photo courtesy of The High Line in Manhattan courtesy of flickr user David Shankbone via a Creative Commons license.

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