New York City: En Route to a Bio Cluster


Xconomy New York — 

Marc Tessier-Lavigne was the first Rockefeller University president to come from industry when he left a top job at Genentech in 2011 to move on to Manhattan’s East Side. In his five years running Rockefeller, Tessier-Lavigne was a staunch advocate of New York City’s life sciences scene, believing in its potential to rise as the next biotech hub complementing Boston and the San Francisco Bay area. “I have a slogan: by 2020 we want to be what Boston was in 2000, which is when Boston’s biotech ecosystem started to take off in a big way,” he says.

Tessier-Lavigne will see this transition happen from the other side of the country as he recently accepted an offer to head back to the West Coast and run Stanford University. No matter the distance, it’s clear that New York City is a unique beast in this world, especially when it comes to biotech. The challenges that the city needs to overcome to make its mark in biotech are well documented. C. Simone Fishburn comprehensively listed the city’s pros and cons in her article “New York’s biotech beginnings,” published in 2014 in Biocentury: scarce lab space, fewer venture investments in early-stage biotech companies and an apparent limited pool of experienced talent despite large, successful local biotechs like Celgene and Regeneron Pharmaceuticals.

In spite of these challenges, there seems to be something striking, effervescent, and energetic about New York City. What unicity characterizes the blueprint that the city has to offer as a differentiating platform for biotech value creation? In a Marxist political economy, productive forces refer to the union of labor power to means of labor. Applied to biotech, these include scientific knowledge and talent for the former, lab space and enabling financial capital for the latter. The streets of New York City are filled with the hustle and bustle of diverse productive forces, which could sprout into a differentiated biotech hub.

Productive forces in New York City express their diversity in three ways: diverse innovation, diverse sources of private capital, and diverse types of entrepreneurs.

A crossroads of innovation: Not only does the city produce excellent biotech research, but it is finding new ways to trickle it down into the clinic and cross-fertilize adjacent industries.

A symphony of private funding: Private capital sources are manifold with money being pooled out of philanthropy, industry and, although still in small amounts, traditional venture capital.

Different entrepreneurs for different models: New York City is maturing a cohort of biotech entrepreneurs with different profiles and operating models.

A crossroads of innovation

New York City’s biotech innovation is showcased in the breadth and depth of the therapeutic and diagnostic areas it covers. The area is harvesting this innovation downstream by finding creative ways to tear down silos across academic institutions and medical centers, as well as across disciplines and industries.

New York City has one of the highest concentrations of academic and medical centers in the world. The city ranks second among all U.S. cities in National Institutes of Health funding behind Boston-Cambridge’s lead (see table below).

NIH Grants

Source: Boston Redevelopment Authority, NIH

New York City is strong in neurosciences and thrives in oncology, thanks to the largest cancer care facilities in the world. The city also has a significant presence in research into many other disease areas: inflammation, metabolic, cardiovascular, infectious, and orphan diseases.

In neurosciences and related mental health diseases, New York has consistently received 10 to 15 percent more NIH funding than Massachusetts over the past four years (see Figure 1).

Figure 1: Cumulative NIH grants in Neurosciences and mental health in NY vs. MA over 2011-2014 ($ Millions)

NIHgrants           Source: Boston Redevelopment Authority, NIH

“New York City’s edge in oncology is indisputable,” says Thong Le, the CEO of Seattle-based Accelerator, a biotech startup creator that now has a foothold in the city. According to Le, Accelerator will be launching several companies this year. Petra Pharma, the first of them, has an oncology focus and Weill Cornell Medical College cell biologist and biochemist Lewis Cantley—who in the past discovered a key enzyme and its related biological pathway at the roots of a number of cancer drugs—as one of its scientific co-founders. Versant Ventures recently made one of its first deals on oncology work coming out of Brent Stockwell’s lab at Columbia University, forming Kyras Therapeutics.

Besides therapeutics, New York City is also active in diagnostics and personalized medicine. The city, for instance, already has a wide range of ongoing initiatives to help with the Precision Medicine Initiative President Obama launched early 2015.

To name a few, the Institute for Precision Medicine at Weill Cornell has recently introduced a sequencing test, EXaCT-1, for advanced-stage cancer patients. Last fall, the New York Genome Center collected $13.5 million from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute as part of the Trans-Omics for Precision Medicine program. Since this past summer, Columbia has started a large scale study into the genomic signatures of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis with a $33.5 million funding pool from Biogen (90 percent) and the ALS Association (10 percent).

The ability to forge interdisciplinary and inter-institutional collaborations may also represent a strong competitive advantage for New York institutions. The city has been at the forefront of breaking silos across universities, different fields of science, and between bench and bedside.

For example, an intimate collaboration focused on developing novel therapeutics has arisen between Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, Rockefeller, and Weill Cornell through the Tri-Institutional Therapeutics Discovery Institute (Tri-I TDI). This institute is a partnership established with Takeda, and provides faculty at the three institutions with the expertise and manpower in medicinal chemistry to more efficiently and effectively move new discoveries toward the clinic. Takeda has stationed 15 medicinal chemists in the Tri-I TDI’s wet lab facility located on the campus of Weill Cornell.

Upon taking office as the Dean of Weill Cornell in 2012, Laurie Glimcher insisted on bridging bench to bedside through the Weill-Cornell institutes: the Institute for Precision Medicine, the Brain Mind Research Institute, the Meyer Cancer Center, and the Roberts Institute for Inflammatory Bowel Disease and Inflammation. These institutes unite principal investigators from … Next Page »

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Louis Levy heads corporate and business development at Ultivue. Vicki Sato is a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School, and runs the the Blavatnik Fellowship in Life Science Entrepreneurship program. Follow @

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