New York City: En Route to a Bio Cluster


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academic “basic” research labs with clinicians at the medical center.

Walls are also falling across graduate schools at Columbia in biomedical engineering. “The number of inventions at the intersection of biology and engineering has significantly increased at Columbia over the past couple of years,” says Orin Herskowitz, executive director of Columbia Technology Ventures, the university’s tech transfer office.

The Zuckerman Institute is yet another step in furthering collaborations across diverse scientific worlds of research. Set to open on Columbia’s campus in Manhattan this year, the institute is intended to be both a hub for neuroscience research and a place where cross-disciplinary collaborations can take place between Columbia neuroscientists, engineers, artists, poets, architects, and others.

Outside academia, New York City is ideally positioned to play a unique interdisciplinary role in combining advances in biology with other industries. Take Modern Meadow, a biofabrication company that started out in California and Missouri intends to sell materials. “We decided to move over to New York City from the West Coast to be closer to our various partners: consumer brands, designers and of course academic research institutions,” explains its founder and CEO, Andras Forgacs. Similarly, PhD Skincare, which develops innovative sunscreen products, relocated from Los Angeles to New York City. “We needed the proximity to the cosmetic industry mostly based in New Jersey and Manhattan,” says its founder and CEO Steven Isaacman.

A symphony of private funding

NIH grants aside, New York City has a mix of available private funding sources, from philanthropy—where the city leads in the whole country—to industry alliances and venture capital.

New York City ranks number one in philanthropic donations made to academic and medical centers accumulated from 2011 to 2015, with over $2.68 million (Figure 2, Philanthropic donations to academic and medical centers of major cities in New York, Massachusetts and California from 2011 to 2015). Boston comes second with over $2.18 million accumulated over the same period.

Figure 2: Philanthropic donations to academic and medical centers of major cities in NY, MA, & CA from 2011-2015 ($ Millions)

Philanthrophy table

Source: The Chronicle of Philanthropy

Cantley moved from Boston to New York City in 2012 to lead the Sandra and Edward Meyer Cancer Center at Weill Cornell and New York-Presbyterian Hospital. “Philanthropy accounted only for 5 percent of my funding while in Boston. Here, it has grown to two thirds of it,” he says. It takes two to three years to obtain a research grant from the NIH; the process is much shorter with philanthropic money. According to Cantley, in times when it is harder to obtain NIH funding, philanthropic money reinforces New York City’s competitive advantage in producing differentiated academic science. As such, philanthropy can guarantee continuity for long term biomedical research progress and foster burgeoning careers for young scientists.

Over the past three years, a fraction of this philanthropic money has been pooled into accelerator funds set up in-house by local academic and medical centers. These funds, which advance technologies that are not yet mature enough for a licensing deal or venture investment are: the Robertson Therapeutic Development Fund ($25 million) at Rockefeller; the Accelerator Fund ($6 million) at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center; the Deadalus Fund for Innovation (single digit millions of dollars) at Weill Cornell; the Columbia-Coulter Translational Research Partnership ($5 million), and NYU Langone’s Translational Science Incubator.

Beyond philanthropic fundraising, New York City researchers can leverage their proximity to the Big Pharma companies in New York and New Jersey to attract industrial partners. In Glimcher’s own words, these “marriages made in heaven” bring the best of what industry and academia can provide for one another. Ever since Glimcher recruited Larry Schlossman to Weill Cornell two years ago to spearhead alliances and collaborations with Big Pharma, a couple of dozens of such “marriages” have been arranged. Schlossman adds the industry partner typically commits a minimum of several million dollars in research funding per alliance, which are designed to last at least three years.

Venture capital is finally starting to pour into the city too. “Compared to Boston that is becoming a little fished out, New York is a virgin territory full of hidden gems,” Schlossman says. Accelerator and Versant have each established a presence in New York City in the summer 2014 for the former, and summer 2015 for the latter. They both focus on strong academic clusters that are underserved in terms of venture capital investments: the Big Apple definitely fits the bill.

Arch Venture Partners, Flagship Ventures, and a consortium composed of Celgene, Eli Lilly, and GE Ventures led by the New York City Economic Development Corp. (NYCEDC) have dedicated $150 million to a life sciences funding partnership. Like Versant and Accelerator, Arch and Flagship will establish presence in New York City. Last summer, Deerfield Management launched a $550 million healthcare venture-capital fund.

Arch partner Tom Brennan says that the firm is putting a full-time employee on the ground in New York City over the next three years, intending to “develop meaningful relationships and create value for principal investigators from the nine New York City academic institutions.” Likewise, Flagship has already appointed a new recruit, Jason Park, to a full-time post in New York City.

Brennan believes that a double-digit number of companies could be started based on the nascent technologies he’s reviewed since last March. He says, however, that these technologies are not ready to attract traditional venture capital yet. They are still too early-stage, sometimes with an unclear market opportunity or exit strategy.

This diagnosis is shared by Carlo Rizzuto, partner at Versant. Versant has put together a “translational research funding” mechanism through its early-stage incubator, Highline Therapeutics. “Highline is a Versant-owned discovery engine funded by both Versant and pharma partners,” Rizzuto explains.

Different entrepreneurs for different models

New York City is already seeing small clusters of biotech from Harlem to Brooklyn and along the central East River corridor in between. Each cluster represents the convergence of human capital gathering in selected locations to build local communities of biotech entrepreneurs. “It’s a string of pearls,” sums up Tessier-Lavigne.

Lack of lab space remains the city’s biggest problem. Still, a number of efforts have been made to address the issue over the past decade, like … 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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