Building New York Into the Next Biotech Hotspot

May 22, 2018

Pharmaceutical Executive

Known as the city that never sleeps, attracting and keeping the scientific breakthroughs in-state is something that’s keeping New York economic and academic developers up at night.

Even just one year ago, a conversation about biotech and New York would have been very different than it was in mid-May at the NewYorkBIO annual meeting in Manhattan. It’s a testament to how rapid the landscape and culture across the whole state of New York is changing when it comes to the industry.

And, although it may seem like the shift has taken place over night, the groundwork to make New York a biotech hotspot similar to the likes of California and Massachusetts, has been happening behind the scenes for about five years.

As Joel Marcus, executive chairman, of Alexandria Real Estate Equities, explained it can take upwards of 10 years to build the infrastructure needed for a healthy and sustainable life sciences industry. When it comes to infrastructure, biotechs need more than just space or laboratories. They need the intellectual and financial infrastructure, as well. 

Christina P. Orsi, associate vice president for economic development at the University of Buffalo, said there has always been, and continues to be, a lot of great academic research happening across New York state, but the problem used to lie in transitioning that from the laboratory to commercialization.

Everyone from academic and financial, to economic development and government leaders in the state have been working to make that transition easier and help keep more of that science and technology in-state. In addition to working with developers to strategically build or redevelop space that these companies need, they have also been creating a biotech-based eco-system from the ground up including incubators, industry partnerships, institutional knowledge, and the training that scientists need to move from academia to business.    

Orsi said funding, which used to be a huge problem for biotechs in New York, has started to become more readily available, and that they are starting to see a lot more venture money, but added that pre-venture money is where the state is struggling.

Fostering the relationship

Doug Thiede, senior vice president of life sciences for the New York City Economic Development Corporation, echoed Orsi.

“For a long time, academia has done great in raising money for the research, but what we haven’t done well is build companies that scale,” he said. “But, we have come a long way. The West Coast always used to get the engineering talent. When thinking who is going to work at these companies…NYC and our university system have some of the richest and best engineering talent that can help drive this, and that is something that is often overlooked. We have to highlight that talent to drive it forward.”

It’s that talent, in some cases that needs the most help, according to many who attended the event. The business, funding, and start-up world is very different than research, science, and the laboratory. Also, the academia needs help when it comes to the business part of things.

Carlo Yuvienco, assistant vice president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, said it’s that early funding for the proof of concept that that needs to be fostered.

“It’s that training that is so essential,” he said. “And, it comes from public intervention and academic institutions…Lessons learned: While not all companies coming through will be success stories, we have to enable across the board for scientists to better communicate with potential corporate investors and business partners.”

To Yuvienco’s point, even if a company is not successful, the leaders will have the business training to go back into the New York biotech ecosystem and work for other startups, or launch another one. This cycle of serial biotech entrepreneurs is something that other, well-established locations have, and New York is in the process of building.

Real world evidence

Nina Tandon, CEO and co-founder of EpiBone, knows the struggle of going from the lab room to the board room first hand.

Tandon has 10 years of experience in tissue engineering and more than eight years experience in bioreactor design. She completed two advanced degrees at Columbia University, a doctorate and postdoc in stem cells and tissues engineering and an executive MBA in healthcare entrepreneurship.

Running a company, she explained, is very different than doing academic research, such as operational challenges that are unique to startups that you don’t find other places. One example she cited was job function.

Milestones have less elasticity because job descriptions change every six months as the business changes-something that you don’t see in a lab setting, she explained.

“In academia, there is a lot more self-direction,” she said. “Running a company, it’s more about combining everyone’s mission and vision together. Instead of everyone working on individual projects, it’s really important to still have them following their individual passions, but also making sure we are coordinating everyone in terms of company milestones.”