Biotech in New York: Scientists and Entrepreneurs Gather to Banter About the City’s Challenges and Opportunities

4/8/11Follow @arleneweintraub

The 20th annual meeting of the New York Biotechnology Association (NYBA) kicked off on April 6 with a panel called “The Global Struggle for the Biopharmaceutical Industry: New York Must Step Up Its Game!” Nathan Tinker, executive director of the NYBA and the panel’s moderator, joked to the gathering crowd at the Marriott Marquis in midtown Manhattan that “there was no controversy at all” to the panel’s “unassuming title.”

In fact, that title expressed perfectly the confluence of themes that emerged at the lively, two-day gathering of NYC-area biotech executives, venture capitalists, and scientists. On the one hand, New York’s biotech CEOs are proud of their association with the city that’s home to pharmaceutical giants like Pfizer, and dozens of top-notch academic institutions and hospitals. But on the other hand, they’re quick to acknowledge the challenges that have landed New York state a perennial third-place ranking in biotech, behind California and Massachusetts.

First, the good points of being a biotech in the Big Apple. Several government agencies are pouring millions of dollars into supporting biotech startups. Eva Cramer of the State University of New York (SUNY) Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, who spoke on Tinker’s panel, said government grants will allow her college to expand its biotech incubator from 38,000 square feet to 85,000 square feet. “Without the support of the state, we wouldn’t have even been able to build the facility,” she said.

City and state government agencies are starting to get better organized about supporting biotechs in New York. Making its debut at the conference was NY BioHud Valley, a new public-private partnership designed to bolster biotech companies in Westchester and other areas north of the city. The group handed out a map showing the 83 companies that are headquartered in the Hudson Valley. And during the keynote lunch, Seth Pinsky, president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, lauded Pfizer for embracing NYC as the home of its new Centers for Therapeutic Innovation, which opened in January. It’s a sign, Pinsky said, “that we’ve arrived.”

Now for the negatives. Despite the millions in grants and other government support, New York has some of the highest business and personal tax rates in the country—a serious barrier to attracting top scientific talent. And some executives say the state doesn’t work very hard to woo companies to the area. Barbara Wood, who worked at OSI Pharmaceuticals in Long Island before it was acquired by Astellas Pharma, said during Tinker’s panel that when her company was looking to consolidate all its offices in one location, its executives were heavily courted by Pennsylvania—but not New York. “The governor of Pennsylvania met with us,” she said. “The mayor of Philly met with us. Not once did that happen in New York.”

Another panel at the conference featured the tale of Vivaldi Biosciences—a flu vaccine developer that was spun out of Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York. Patrick McGrath, executive director of Mount Sinai’s office of technology and business development, said he had to beg the Vivaldi’s CEO, Douglas Given, to keep the company in the city. “Doug politely told me that he wasn’t going to do that,” McGrath recalled. “His office was on the West coast. He thought the appetite by investors would be better there.” Given, who also spoke, didn’t dispute McGrath’s account. Ultimately, though, he agreed to keep Vivaldi in New York—and was pleasantly surprised by how easy it was to recruit good scientists to the new company. “An ad in Science magazine brought us all our scientists. We didn’t need recruiters,” he said.

Local industry experts understand why life in the big city isn’t always easy for tiny biotechs. Part of the problem has been a lack of coordination between the scientists who make the discoveries and the entrepreneurs who can bring them to market. “NYC has been recognized as a leader in scientific development for quite some time, with intellectual assets that are on par with any other city in the world,” said Derek Brand, director of business development for the New York Academy of Sciences, in an interview as the conference was coming to a close. “One of the challenges in advancing entrepreneurial bioscience in the region has been the level of interconnectivity between academic scientists and entrepreneurs.Thankfully, this is improving. This meeting is a good example.”

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