A Band of Postdocs Pursues a New York Biotech Dream in Harlem

8/5/13Follow @benthefidler

For years, life science innovators in New York City have pounded tables in frustration at the Big Apple’s inability to form a biotech cluster despite all of its financial and institutional might. The problem, they’ve been saying for years, is there just isn’t an inexpensive, convenient way for entrepreneurs to conduct lab experiments in one of the most densely populated, expensive cities to live in the world.

Solving this, of course, is no easy task. It’s hard enough to find a fairly-priced one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan, let alone thousands of affordable square feet to run a few cell lines. But a group of postdoctoral researchers at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, on Manhattan’s upper east side, think they’ve found a way.

Nicole McKnight, Ilse Daehn, Gabriella Casalena, and Merina Varghese, (pictured below) have banded together to form the Keystone for Incubating Innovation in Life Sciences – NYC, or “KiiLN,” for short (a fifth co-founder, Yana Zorina, now works at Acorda Therapeutics as a cell biologist). KiiLN has two main goals: first, to bring cheap lab space to prospective life sciences entrepreneurs in the big city. Second, to foster the New York biotech innovation community and provide a forum for networking, mentorship, and even support services such as accounting and legal advice.

“There’s money, there are really bright people here, there’s great science, these great institutions—there’s this sense that New York should and will become the third hub for this,” McKnight says, referencing the top two biotech hubs—Boston and San Francisco. “But there’s one thing keeping it from happening, and we feel pretty strongly that it’s incubator space is missing.”

KiiLN isn’t the first group to try to change that. Samuel Sia, an associate professor at Columbia University, is only months away from opening up a small incubator in West Harlem known as Harlem Biospace. KiiLN, however, contends the two can, and should coexist, and that the New York biotech community will be better for it. Harlem Biospace, McKnight says, will be a good place for “small, very early stage startups with minimum requirements,” while KiiLN is hatching something larger, and more flexible—a “step-up incubator” for entrepreneurs expanding their companies beyond one or two people, and whose needs grow accordingly.

“We are confident that the New York City biotech community recognizes the need for multiple-sized incubators that can coexist and contribute to the creation of a dynamic and nurturing environment for startups,” McKnight says. “Harlem Biospace will be a great case study for us, and for New York City, and we wish them lots of success.”

The idea for KiiLN came out of an entrepreneurship-themed postdoctoral symposium at Mount Sinai that McKnight and Daehn ran in September. At the event, the two were inspired by a speech given by Marc Tessier-Lavigne, the renowned neuroscientist, former Genentech executive, president of New York’s Rockefeller University, and co-founder of the New York Genome Center. The gist of his talk was that there should be more collaborations between academia and large pharmaceutical companies in the city.

“He gave this really inspirational talk about the future of drug development and biotech in New York, and how he sees it as a positive thing and a great place for this to happen,” McKnight says. “He said one of the big needs is lab space in New York. He called for that.”

From Left: Daehn, Casalena, Varghese, and McKnight in East Harlem

McKnight, Daehn, and their friends and fellow scientists Casalena, Varghese, and Zorina kept that thought in mind a few months later when they were taking part in a newly-minted program set up by the Icahn school’s Center for Technology, Innovation, and Entrepreneurship dubbed the “Q.E.D. Project”—a micro MBA class of sorts, in which students are tasked over the full course of an academic year with identifying a problem, inventing a solution for it, and communicating their idea in a compelling way to investors. The group decided to tackle the city’s big biotech innovation problem, searching for a way to stop promising ideas originating in New York research and academic centers from either stalling, or getting shipped out to different locations to create companies where the real estate is cheaper.

“We’re losing the talent,” Daehn says. “Because of the inaccessibility of space and the expense, scientists are forced to take their technologies out of New York.”

So they hatched the idea for KiiLN, with this plan in mind: an incubation center of between … Next Page »

Ben Fidler is Xconomy's Deputy Biotechnology Editor. You can e-mail him at bfidler@xconomy.com Follow @benthefidler

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