Over the past five years, the narrative has changed for life sciences in New York. Biotech investors are, at long last, on the ground in the city looking for deals. High-profile startups have emerged. Yet the city’s biotech leaders know there are still challenges ahead.
“This is a pivotal moment,” said Susan Solomon, the CEO of the nonprofit New York Stem Cell Foundation.
Solomon was speaking at the annual meeting of the trade organization NewYorkBio. There was optimism throughout the meeting, but caution as well. First, the optimism. There is no denying the progress that has been made in New York: a number of collaborative efforts are underway to move scientific research forward. Venture firms like Versant Ventures, Arch Venture Partners, and Flagship Ventures (backing the New York City Economic Development Corp.’s life sciences fund), and company creator Accelerator Corp. are operating in Manhattan. Versant and Accelerator have already formed startups, and word at the meeting was the NYCEDC’s fund could be making an announcement soon as well. Tech transfer officers say they’re getting the kind of traffic, and bidding competitions, they never did a few years ago. For the first time, the meeting included a “pitch fest” competition between 33 startups.
“We’ve been working at this for a long time,” said Rockefeller University associate vice president Kathleen Denis, “and our reward finally came in 2015.”
Some numbers to support that statement were provided in a panel discussion between Denis and tech transfer executives from Columbia University (Ofra Weinberger), NYU Langonne Medical Center (Abram Goldfinger), and Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai (Sybil Lombillo). Between the 13 institutions that compose the New York Academic Consortium—from the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx to Stony Brook University in Long Island—-the number of startups to emerge each year has doubled between 2013 and 2015 from 37 to 73. Columbia formed 17 companies two years ago, said Weinberger; last year it was 27. NYU Langonne was doing five or six startups a year in the mid 2000s, according to Goldfinger; in 2015 it was 13 and 15 or 16 are expected this year. The number of licensing deals jumped from 309 to 398 over the same timeframe, and the number of signed confidentiality agreements climbed from 1,414 to 1,829.
Yet amidst those good vibes, there’s a sense of caution and urgency, that New York can’t waste this moment. Real estate has been, and remains, the seemingly immovable object standing in the way of New York producing a productive startup biotech ecosystem. Entrepreneurs and tech transfer officers at the meeting continued to bemoan the lack of wet lab space, as well as affordable living space, in New York City. There’s the Alexandria Center for Life Science, a sprawling complex on Manhattan’s East Side, which opened in 2010 and currently houses some of the most ambitious biotech startups in New York, not to mention some outposts for pharma companies like Roche and Pfizer. Rockefeller president Marc Tessier-Lavigne called it a “counter-intuitive but brilliant move” to start off by building the Alexandria Center, because it helped put New York biotech on the map. Still, it’s too expensive for many smaller biotech startups with modest financial backing to afford.
To help with this problem, a few incubators have popped up—Harlem Biospace in West Harlem for the one to two person startup, SUNY Downstate Medical Center’s incubator and BioBAT in Brooklyn for the larger entities that are further along—but many say it’s not nearly enough for the city to achieve its change it wants. Other facilities are needed. What if a few of these startups take off and need to expand to where they need space for hundreds of employees? What if the venture firms in town see nowhere to build their companies?
“This is a fragile time in the [city’s] growth,” said Tessier-Lavigne. “It can’t be too difficult to overcome [the real estate] hurdle. If it is, we’ll find that the people who’ve been drawn here to start things will pack up their bags and go back to places where it’s easier to do it.”
It won’t make things easier that some important leaders are leaving the city. Tessier-Lavigne—a mainstay at events like this, who in his five years at Rockefeller has become a New York biotech ringleader—will become the president of Stanford University on Sept. 1. Weill Cornell Medical College dean Laurie Glimcher will begin running the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston at the end of the year. Gillian Small, the vice chancellor for research at the City University of New York, is heading to Farleigh Dickinson in New Jersey in August after a roughly 15 year stint.
But the groundwork has been laid. Efforts like the New York Structural Biology Center back in 1999, and more recently the New York Genome Center and the Tri-Institutional Therapeutics Discovery Institute in 2013, have become testaments to a more collaborative attitude among the city’s research centers. There is more engagement by tech transfer offices in moving science forward, what Mount Sinai’s Lombillo referred to as an “awareness that we have a role to play” in the development of nascent technologies. Part of that awareness is due to the efforts of outgoing leaders like Tessier-Lavigne and Small. As NYCEDC president Maria Torres-Springer said, the “imprint” that they have had “will endure.”
Now it’s on Torres-Springer, the NYCEDC, and several others to solve the city’s lab space problem before everything falls apart. In a late afternoon panel discussion, Torres-Springer gave a glimpse into what the NYCEDC is trying to do to figure things out. The NYCEDC, mindful of how the most recent recession exemplified the need to diversify the economy—and not, for instance, rely on the financial sector—wants life science to become a staple of New York business. Yet a variety of problems, from zoning issues to available space, are holding it back. It’s undertaken a study, called the “life sciences infrastructure study,” to understand what the real estate demands are and will be for the biotech companies that are already here and will form over the next 10 years.
Torres-Springer said the demands could be as high as 3 million square feet of space, and while she wouldn’t give specific details on what the NYCEDC is doing to accommodate that, she said it’s likely going to have to come from a mix of public and private sites, and different locations around the city’s boroughs, rather than a main campus or cluster like Mission Bay in the San Francisco Bay Area or Kendall Square in Boston. One possibility for lab space is Governor’s Island, for which the NYCEDC will be releasing before the end of the year a request for proposal to redevelop some space. But, as Torres-Spring said, there’s no “silver bullet” to solve the problem. It’s going to take one building at a time, one lab at a time, one startup at a time, to change the perception that biotech startups can’t be built in Manhattan. As Tessier-Lavigne said in what could be seen as parting words for New York biotech:
“We make this happen as a community. It takes a village and it takes all of the leadership of all the institutions. But what’s wonderful about New York is this spirit of collegiality, and the sense that ‘we need this, we want this, and we can make this happen.’ It’s a can-do place.”