Tom Maniatis, Molecular Biology Pioneer, Seeks to Help Build a Kendall Square in NYC

4/5/11Follow @xconomy

Tom Maniatis doesn’t fit the profile of a typical New York economic booster, who is usually a politician or big-time businessman. Maniatis is one of the pioneers of modern molecular biology, who wrote a definitive how-to manual on genetic engineering in the early 1980s. He spent 30 years at Harvard University and co-founded one of the biotechnology industry’s trailblazing companies, Genetics Institute. Along the way, he became one of the mover/shakers in the world’s highest-density-per-square-foot cluster of biotech brainpower and entrepreneurial talent—Kendall Square in Cambridge, MA.

Now, at 68, Maniatis is attempting something almost as ambitious as what he did in his younger days. For the past year, since Maniatis moved his lab to Columbia University, he has made it part of his mission to help create a more vibrant biotech ecosystem in New York. He wants to help create a biotech beehive like the one a few hours away he knows so well.

“What’s missing in New York is the sense of entrepreneurial activity,” Maniatis says. “It just didn’t happen here.”

New York has no trouble laying claim to being a world capital of finance, media, entertainment, and fashion, but it has never really harnessed its potential to become a dominant biotech cluster, like Boston or San Francisco. Despite high-profile initiatives over the years, New York still hasn’t created a Kendall Square-like hotspot to commercialize inventions from the great research centers like Columbia, Rockefeller University, New York University, Weill Cornell Medical College, and Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. Comparing regional hubs is always tricky, and depends on which way you prefer to keep score (patents, total employment, sales, market cap, etc.). But consider this: the New York Biotech Association lists 250 members, while the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council has 600.

For a place full of strivers like New York, this has long left a sour taste in many mouths. Maniatis has noticed it in his first year in the Big Apple.

“There’s a lot of frustration in New York,” Maniatis says. “There’s a lot of IP here and it all ends up going to San Francisco, San Diego, and Boston.”

This wasn’t exactly news to Maniatis, so I had to ask, why move? He arrived in New York, like so many others, with a personal dream, he says. His research has shifted over the years from the basic mechanisms of genetics—expression, transcription, splicing—into specific areas of gene expression in the brain. He’s become particularly interested in the mechanics of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), the neurodegenerative condition otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Columbia has a world-class neuroscience department—including Nobel laureates Richard Axel and Eric Kandel—so Maniatis says it struck him as the best place for him to carry out his new line of work.

Maniatis has long kept his fingers in the Boston biotech startup community, most recently as a founding scientific advisor and member of the board at Cambridge, MA-based Acceleron Pharma, and as a board member of Constellation Pharmaceuticals. Maniatis also stays up to speed on hot startup ideas through his work as a science partner at The Column Group. This is one of a handful of venture firms that bets exclusively on “big idea” biotech startups, and it includes some other very big names—including David Baltimore, Rick Klausner, David Goeddel, Michael Brown, and Joseph Goldstein.

It didn’t take long for Maniatis to survey the landscape and form some fast impressions of New York’s biotech strengths and weaknesses. Science in the city, Maniatis says, struck him immediately as first-rate. “In terms of the diversity between academic and medical science, New York is better than Boston,” he says, citing the work at Columbia, Rockefeller, Weill Cornell, Mt. Sinai Medical Center, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, NYU, and Memorial Sloan-Kettering.

What New York lacks, he says, is anything like Boston’s hub of entrepreneurship and venture capital that creates up-and-coming startups like Acceleron and Constellation. “Those companies are in midst of Kendall Square with such incredible vitality and activity. There’s nothing in New York that’s comparable,” Maniatis says.

Some history is required to explain this. Back when the biotech industry was just getting started in the late 1970s and early 1980s, MIT already had a longstanding culture of supporting scientific and engineering entrepreneurship, Maniatis says. The institute, in the heart of Kendall Square, also happened to own a lot of nearby real estate, and there was plenty of other cheap and available land just blocks away, including lots of run-down warehouses. “They (MIT) promoted biotech. They built and leased buildings. They really played an important role,” Maniatis says.

New York’s academic institutions in those days, Maniatis says, didn’t have the same interest in turning basic science into applied science. Real estate was a lot more pricey, and crowded in New York, too. There was not an incubator where fledgling companies could start in New York, he says. It put the Big Apple years behind, he says.

The Alexandria Center for Life Science (formerly known as the East River Science Park) has long been considered one of the important missing pieces in New York. Maniatis says he’s personally been disappointed because the state-of-the-art lab space is largely being filled up by a Big Pharma company (Eli Lilly), and academic labs for NYU.

“It didn’t turn out to be the center they were hoping for,” Maniatis says. “It didn’t really attract new startups.” One exception is Kadmon, the startup led by former ImClone CEO Sam Waksal.

Of course, not many places anywhere (even Kendall Square) have been spawning new startups since the financial meltdown of September 2008. And biotech startups, by their nature, take a long time to prove whether they pan out or not.

So Maniatis says he’s turned some his attention to ways he thinks can help foster more biotech startups. One of the potentially important pieces is what’s being called the New York Genome Center. Not much is being said about this project publicly yet, but Maniatis says he believes New York needs a major center equipped with super-fast, super-cheap gene sequencing machines. Shortly after arriving in New York, he realized that if he wanted to do some seriously ambitious gene sequencing experiments, there wasn’t anything around quite like Boston’s flagship institution for this kind of work—The Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

The New York Genome Center project is still very much a work in progress, Maniatis says. But so far, a coalition of seven New York institutions have put together a proposal to the City of New York, which is seeking to support an applied science and engineering research campus. It’s one of 18 proposals from academic institutions around the world, so the competition is certainly going to be tough.

But Maniatis is clearly passionate about this effort to do something big in New York, and brings a great scientific pedigree and Rolodex to the effort.

Before ending our conversation about New York biotech, I had to ask, why does he care so much about New York anyway? After all, he’s from Denver, CO, and made his career at Harvard University, Caltech, and through a brief stint on Long Island at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory.

Maniatis didn’t have a clever, ready-made answer for that one. As someone who was there from the beginning, and helped build Kendall Square into the biotech hub it is today, he simply said he’d like to do that one more time.

“It’s funny, I’ve been asked that a million times. I’m interested and excited to see something like this happen. I’d like to see something like Kendall Square,” Maniatis says. “It’s enriched the academic and business life in Boston in an amazing way, and it would be great to see that happen here.”

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