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 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 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.

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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