In Brooklyn, An Incubator Perseveres As Biotech Perks Up in the City

Xconomy New York — 

Ask a New Yorker where to find an affordable apartment, and one of the most popular answers these days is Brooklyn. A SUNY Downstate Medical Center professor named Eva Cramer has been trying to prove for years that the old borough is the answer for the city’s lab space problem too.

It hasn’t been an easy task. The trials and tribulations of Cramer’s brainchild, the SUNY Downstate Incubator in Prospect Lefferts Gardens, and its larger sister facility at the Brooklyn Army Terminal, known as BioBAT, have been well documented: Downstate reportedly butted heads with its partners at the New York City Economic Development Corp. early on over the direction of the project, which was the area’s first biotech startup incubator when it opened for business 11 years ago. Filling up BioBAT, in particular, has been a tall order. And both facilities are far from many of the city’s academic institutions, making it a challenge to recruit scientists from the area who want to turn their work into companies.

That’s why Cramer, soft-spoken yet passionate about the project, says she was often dismissed by folks who would say, “It can only happen in Manhattan.” It’s also why, despite Cramer’s efforts, the lab space crisis is still talked about ad nauseam as New York biotech’s number one problem.

“One of the things that amazed me was that [people] didn’t mind being insulting right to my face—they weren’t doing it behind my back,” she says. “They’d say, ‘It can never happen, you’ll never attract the scientist from the universities in the city.’”

Cramer (pictured above) is the vice president for biotech and scientific affairs at SUNY Downstate and a professor of cell biology. In 2000 she saw that some of the university’s professors wanted to start companies—there was just nowhere remotely close to put them. That’s how the project started, and as time went on it became broader in scope, becoming a haven for companies not just from Downstate, but other universities and even outposts for international organizations like the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI). Cramer spearheaded an effort to raise money from city and state sources like Empire State Development’s NYSTAR, and Downstate used the cash to buy space adjacent to the school and build an incubator in phases as more money would come in. Cramer first raised enough money for an 11,000-square-foot facility, and built that up. Then came another 13,000-square-foot piece. Just a few weeks ago, the incubator more than doubled in size, as a new 26,000-square-foot space was officially opened to potential tenants.

Along the way, in 2006, Cramer hatched BioBAT, a joint venture between Downstate and the NYCEDC. It’s a much larger facility meant for companies that become successful, outgrow the incubator, and need more space for things like manufacturing. The space is significant; it’s part of the Brooklyn Army Terminal, a giant concrete complex built some 100 years ago and originally used to help ship soldiers and supplies over to Europe. The city bought it back from the Department of Defense over 30 years ago, and it’s since become home to a number of local businesses. (Check out this report from Business Insider for some examples and photos of the complex’s transformation.)

Like the incubator, BioBAT has been built in phases, the first being 38,000 square feet and the second an additional 85,000. All told, it could end up at 524,000 square feet once completely built out. But it’s a hike. The Brooklyn Army Terminal is close to Bay Ridge in south Brooklyn, a ways away from Manhattan (a subway ride from Columbia University, for instance, would take more than an hour). As with any apartment in New York, tenants are trading convenience to Manhattan for affordability and space.

“It’s very expensive in Manhattan—you could do this much more reasonably in Brooklyn,” Cramer says. “We could therefore be able to keep the rents very low. And that’s really important, especially for these early stage companies.” (The incubator charges about $40 per square foot per year for rent, and BioBAT rent is somewhere in the $30s-per-square-foot range, Cramer says.)

Yet luring those companies has been a chore. As a report from the Wall Street Journal last year noted, there were “bitter disputes” between Downstate and the NYCEDC about managing the project; there were delays in construction at BioBAT as well, the report said. Cramer notes that initially there was conflict over where to build BioBAT—Downstate preferred Brooklyn, whereas its partners at the NYCEDC “were geared more towards Manhattan.” But after raising $90 million in federal, state, and city funds over the last decade and steadily increasing the size of the project, Cramer says that the incubator now houses 21 companies, many of which are “from all the various universities.”

“The best way to describe this whole experience is a jagged line that goes up and down and up and down—but is constantly going up,” she says. “We’ve been very successful in renting despite the naysayers.”

Three companies—anchor tenant IAVI, tissue engineering firm Modern Meadow, and a Brooklyn vaccines startup called Avatar Biotechnologies—lease out large spaces within BioBAT. A fourth company, IRX Therapeutics, which has been operating out of the Downstate incubator, will move in to BioBAT in the spring, Cramer says.

“The space we have has really worked well for us and allowed us to grow,” says Sarah Sclarsic, Modern Meadow’s business director.

One thing in Cramer’s favor: Hipster jokes notwithstanding, Brooklyn has undergone a renaissance. Young professionals looking for apartments within earshot of Manhattan have … Next Page »

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