Alexandria Bets That Future of Life Sciences Is In the ‘Urbs, Not ‘Burbs

6/4/08Follow @xconomy

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are transportation trends. Commuting times are getting longer, gas prices are an issue in the presidential campaign, and people are starting to think seriously about ways to reduce time spent in the car and live closer to work.

The Alexandria proposal takes those desires into account. The envisioned labs and offices would cover land that’s mainly used now for parking lots and one-story industrial buildings, all of which Alexandria owns already. (Click on the image, above right, for a larger view of the “active open space” that Alexandria envisions as part of the development.)

A couple early signs of life can already be spotted: a 275-unit residential building was recently completed near the envisioned development on Third Street in Cambridge, and another project under construction nearby will bring 575 new housing units to the neighborhood, Andrews says. But that, he says, could be only the beginning. “Kendall Square over time will become more of a 24-hour city, with real urban amenities, with the ability to walk, drive, shop and work in close proximity to where one lives,” Andrews says.

The risk, which any life sciences landlord can appreciate, is that biotech is one of the ultimate boom-bust industries. Only an estimated one of 10 drugs that enters clinical trials ever passes all the tests required to become a marketed product, according to a 2004 article in Nature Reviews. Congress could pass price controls on drugs that would send biotech stocks reeling, drying up venture capital for startups. Safety worries about new drugs at any time may make U.S. drug regulators especially cautious about approving new ones. If that weren’t enough, one consequence of an economic downturn is that biotech companies who survive may migrate to the suburbs to save on rent. Biotech space in Massachusetts suburbs typically costs about 30 percent to 60 percent less than space of a similar quality in Cambridge, Andrews says.

Still, even for penny-counting startups, the extra cost is often worth it, says Robert Paull, CEO of Genocea Biosciences, and a managing partner at Lux Capital Partners in New York. “A lot of startups need to be where the action is,” Paull says. “You need proximity to your investors, your partners, your key suppliers. It helps to be close to Logan Airport. You’ll pay a little more for that.”

Genocea, a vaccine developer, chose to move into an Alexandria property at the corner of First Street and Binney Street in Cambridge. One big reason is that more than half its employees live in or near the city, Paull says.

And he’s hardly alone in his view. “There’s incredible energy in Cambridge,” says Alan Crane, CEO of Tempo Pharmaceuticals, a nanotech drug developer in the same building as Genocea. Crane says he likes to recruit the type of employees who are drawn to the intellectually stimulating environment of Cambridge, which helps nurture valuable relationships with advisers at universities.

“It may be cheaper in the suburbs, but there’s an opportunity cost to leaving Cambridge,” Crane says. “It’s too much to give up.”

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