Over the past few years, the first biotech startup incubators have popped up in New York City in places like Brooklyn and West Harlem. And there’s a chance the next one may come from an unlikely source: a nonprofit organization known as the New York Stem Cell Foundation.
According to Susan Solomon, the CEO and co-founder of the NYSCF—a roughly 10-year-old entity that is one of the world leaders in stem cell research—the nonprofit plans to start spinning out its work into companies, and wants to create an in-house incubator as part of that effort. The NYSCF just signed a lease to move into a new home (pictured above) on West 54th St. and 11th Ave. in Manhattan, where it’ll have over 40,000 square feet of space—more than double what it currently has.
Perhaps the biggest item on the NYSCF’s agenda is finding ways to commercialize its work, something it hasn’t done as of yet. That’s where the incubator comes in.
“There’s a lot of interest in it, we’re approached all the time by people who have ideas and technology and intellectual property and want to start companies,” Solomon says. “So we’ll have to see—hopefully we’ll be able to get some support to do that.”
If the NYSCF were to follow through with this, it would be at least the third biotech startup incubator to form in New York City. Manhattan’s first biotech incubator, Harlem Biospace, started up in 2013, adding to the city’s other one up and running at the Brooklyn Army Terminal, known as BioBAT. Versant Ventures started another incubator in Chelsea earlier this year called Highline Therapeutics—albeit Highline is more an outpost for Versant to work with academic institutions to create companies, rather than a co-working space. Efforts like these are sorely needed for a life sciences scene that, even with all of its prolific academic institutions, is a long way away from having the biotech startup ecosystem that regions like Boston and San Francisco do.
One big reason for this problem is the perpetual struggle to secure and develop affordable lab space. As Rockefeller University president and former Genentech chief scientific officer Marc Tessier-Lavigne, one of the ringleaders in the city’s life sciences scene, said at the recent Biotech and Money conference in New York in November: “If we can solve that, everything else will fall into place.”
Incubators are one of the solutions, as is the New York City Economic Development Corp.’s plan to find space for a “step out” incubator, so biotech startups can stay local while they grow and hire more employees. The NYCEDC earlier this year also announced plans to redevelop a 14-story city-owned building on the lower east side of Manhattan into a bioscience research center with more than 100,000 square feet of lab space.
These are just some of the initiatives put in place over the past few years to mobilize New York biotech, which used to be hamstrung by a combative mindset between its academic institutions but now boasts a number of collaborative efforts—among them the New York Genome Center, the Tri-Institutional Therapeutics Discovery Institute, and the NYSCF.
Solomon, a longtime patient advocate whose son was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in the 90s, formed the NYSCF at a time when politics had gotten in the way of research into embryonic stem cells, which can mature into any type of cell in the body. She felt that stem cells were a “game changer” that could lead to new therapies, or even cures for a variety of diseases. The federal funding wasn’t there for stem cell research in the mid 2000s, however, and rather than try to appeal to voters the way the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) did via Proposition 71 to land $3 billion in bonds, Solomon used something New York has in spades—philanthropic money. She proceeded to raise over $150 million over the next 10 years from Bloomberg Philanthropies, J.M. Kaplan Fund, and others.
“It was a good thing that we didn’t [seek government funding], because government is not fast,” she says. “It’s many things—when it is pointed in the right direction it can scale hugely. But it’s not nimble, it’s not entrepreneurial, and it’s not going to take big risks.”
Solomon says, for instance, that the NYSCF plowed ahead with some ideas that many senior folks in biotech and pharma thought were “crazy to do”—like a method of using stem cells to prevent mitochondrial diseases, work done in tandem with Columbia University scientists that was published in Nature in 2012 (see this profile in the New York Times for more). Its researchers supported the creation of the first patient-specific stem cells for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and because of the philanthropic support, the organization has grown into an operation with 45 scientists and its own research labs. The NYSCF creates and harvests a variety of stem cell lines in house, performs research, works with stem cell researchers around the globe, trains scientists through a fellowship program, and runs conferences.
The organization also does a lot of work into neurodegenerative diseases like ALS, Parkinson’s, autism, and schizophrenia, as well as autoimmune disorders (multiple sclerosis), diabetes, and bone and tissue repair.
Further, though some of its benefactors have had a “particular agenda” as to where the money should go, Solomon swears that hasn’t influenced the NYSCF’s strategy. “We’ve been able to stick to our knitting here,” she says.
But the NYSCF hasn’t, to this point, tried to commercialize its research. Solomon says the organization has been busy fundraising and growing, and that it wanted to pursue science without being influenced by what pharma and biotech companies wanted, or didn’t want. “I don’t want to have to stop doing something because it’s not fashionable,” she says.
The NYSCF is currently evaluating how to best benefit from its research, and which programs to try to commercialize first. In some cases, it might act like a university—license out some intellectual property to a for-profit company, and get a royalty that it would put back into more research. In other cases, it may spin out companies via the incubator. Solomon mentioned in-house efforts to use stem cells to create “personalized bones,” or help address the overactive immune response in disorders like type 1 diabetes. “We have a lot of things that are close enough to [clinical trials],” she says. “We will definitely be spinning things out and licensing things over the next 12 months.”