New York City: En Route to a Bio Cluster


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the Alexandria Center for Life Science (over 800,000 of rentable square feet), Harlem Biospace (2,500 rentable square feet), Suny Downstate Medical Center’s biotech incubator (over 50,000 rentable square feet), and BioBAT (38,000 rentable square feet, with a second space of 85,000 rentable square feet underway). The NYCEDC is thinking of the next wave of physical expansion. “We have been crafting a 10-year roadmap for further growth of life sciences infrastructure in New York City,” explain Lenzie Harcum and Raphael Farzan-Kashani, vice president and director, respectively, of the Life Sciences & Healthcare Desks at the NYCEDC.

“We need to extend Harlem Biospace and add entrepreneurial service centers like [Cambridge’s] LabCentral,” adds Maria Gotsch, President and CEO at the Partnership Fund for New York City, referring to one of the Boston area’s big biotech incubators.

Each of these New York City pearls is characterized by a distinct kind of biotech entrepreneur. Any of these types of entrepreneurs can be also found in other biotech hubs like Boston, just not in the same relative proportions as in New York City, where a more balanced split across entrepreneurial types can be observed. The variety of entrepreneur profiles is indeed clearer and more visible in New York City than in Boston: to every “pearl,” its unique profile (see table below, “New York City biotech entrepreneurs’ typology”).

New York Bio Entrepreneur TypologyGotsch observes that unlike Boston or the Bay area, New York City first attracted Big Pharma before biotech startups. After Eli Lilly, Roche and Pfizer, whose labs are located in the Alexandria Center, well-funded startups are also moving there. Joel Marcus, CEO and founder of Alexandria Real Estate Equities, notes that the firm is home to venture-backed biotechs like Kadmon, and publicly traded companies such as Intra-Cellular Therapies.

The most recent addition to the Alexandria Center is Kallyope, which was founded by Charles Zuker, Tom Maniatis and Richard Axel, Columbia professors who became experienced company starters. The company is headed by Merck veteran Nancy Thornberry and initially funded by New York-based Lux Capital, Boston’s Polaris Partners, and the San Francisco Bay Area’s The Column Group. “VCs usually work with proven entrepreneurs with a success under their belt or rising stars who have worked under a proven CEO,” Rizzuto says.

Like Suny Downstate’s incubator in Brooklyn, Harlem Biospace nests proto-companies fresh out of academia. Epibone is the prime example: two post-docs from Columbia, Nina Tandon and Sarindr Bhumiratana, were growing bone out of stem cells in Gordana Vunjak-Novakovic’s lab and decided to launch a company. Like Modern Meadow, Epibone is a Peter Thiel’s Breakout labs’ grant recipient that decided to grow in New York City. “Lots of young scientists want to move to New York City. We receive resumes from Harvard, MIT, and prestigious universities over the world… The diversity of industries and cultural events in NYC is unparalleled, and makes it an exciting place to be!” says Mr. Bhumiratana.

Harlem Biospace is building a unique culture around this younger “academic transfer” type of entrepreneurs. “Entrepreneurs at the Harlem Biospace are 38 years-old in average. We have a built a community of 4,000 people with our riverside chats and speaker series,” describes Matt Owens, the incubator’s executive director. Five years after entering the Harlem Biospace, Epibone outgrew its incubator space and moved on to SUNY Downstate’s incubator.

The virtual biotech model seems to be a good fit with the New York City culture. After all, being an entrepreneur is all about building relationships and trying to get people to become enthusiastic about an idea. “New York City is full of people that excel in that ability.” says Tom Cirrito, one of these “bootstrappers,” whose latest company is Filament Biosolutions and who teaches classes about the virtual biotech startup company model at NYU. According to Cirrito, Manhattan’s universities provide substantial expertise to help entrepreneurs outsource preclinical stage work to a virtual company.

Looking ahead

Standing on its diverse productive forces, New York City can leverage its powerful assets in innovation, private capital, and entrepreneurs. New York City is constantly moving at a fast pace. Tessier-Lavigne says that Boston’s exciting growth in biotech makes it harder for nascent and developing biotech companies to find affordable space and grow. Conversely, Tessier-Lavigne believes that New York City’s life sciences scene will soon reach a point of critical mass that should make growth more sustainable.

Weill Cornell’s Glimcher has shown how mobile talent can be in attracting over 50 principal investigators from across the country to the school over the past four years. Glimcher still admits that it is difficult to recruit younger scientists with families, however, due to the cost of living and the uneven quality of public schools in Manhattan proper—in the surrounding boroughs and suburbs, there are many high quality schools, Tessier-Lavigne adds.

New York City will have some work to do in the years to come. Tessier-Lavigne and Glimcher have both chosen to leave New York. The former returns to the Bay area, and the latter to Boston, creating a temporary leadership void. The mindset they instilled of tightening bonds bewteen academia, entrepreneurs, and industry should continue through the people they hired, the processes they designed, and the philosophy of tearing down silos that they practiced. New leaders of equivalent stature to drive the New York City cluster at this exciting, still fragile time, will of course be necessary to keep the push for excellence in the long run.

Above and beyond leadership, the biotech community of NYC should pursue its efforts in three areas:

Continue to break the silos between disciplines. Lorraine Marchand, former director and currently adjunct professor and advisor of the healthcare and pharmaceutical management program at Columbia, is reinforcing the convergence of business, engineering, and biomedical research. Such interdisciplinary forums could even be expanded beyond the classroom through multidisciplinary startup weekends and hackathons in life sciences, or biodesign and bioengineering entrepreneurs’ cafes.

Create more bridges between academia and life science entrepreneurship. New York City is filled with young scientists at the launch of their careers: they have the professional runway to become entrepreneurs. In times when NIH funding continues to slow, these scientists could have a better chance preparing to start a company than trying to obtain an academic position. This has an upstream impact on the type of research they perform as graduate students. Academic programs should instill into these young talents early on the possibility of branching out into life sciences entrepreneurship.

Strengthen “neutral” institutions. MassBio played a key role in Boston’s initial success by helping its biotech members achieve tangible benefits like collective bargaining power. The New York Academy of Science has been actively helping local scientists by providing career services to academics for jobs in the industry and organizing productive scientific seminars, according to its president, Ellis Rubinstein. Both NewYorkBio and the NYAS should enhance their roles. They could become convening centers and catalysts for academic scientists excited by the business of science.

Should it succeed, the Big Apple can fulfill its vision of becoming the country’s next big biotech hub.

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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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