Sam Sia’s NY Biotech Incubator Already Bustling With 16 Startups

12/13/13Follow @benthefidler

It was less than a year ago when Columbia University professor and entrepreneur Samuel Sia sat on an airplane sketching out the floor plan for a biotech incubator in the middle of Manhattan. That vision is now becoming real.

Sia is the co-founder of Harlem Biospace, a new biotech incubator on 127th Street in Manhattan’s West Harlem. The incubator officially opened just a month ago, on Nov. 1, and Sia said it has already become profitable. Sia wouldn’t disclose just what the final revenue and profit figures are from the first six weeks of operation, but scientists from 16 local startups occupy 22 of its 24 workstations. Each workstation goes for a list price of $995 per month.

“I think it really validates that there’s huge demand for this kind of stuff,” he says. “There are companies and people here that nobody knew about. But once the space was here, then they came out and said you know, I want to give it a try.”

Samuel Sia, co-founder of Harlem Biospace

Samuel Sia, co-founder of Harlem Biospace

Local medical oncologist Michael Tirgan, for instance, is developing treatments for keloid disorder, a skin condition, with his startup, Tirgan Biopharmaceuticals. For him, the brainstorming between entrepreneurs in the facility, and the connections he’s getting by being there, have been more valuable than the actual space he’s working in.

“With the help I’m getting here, I’ll be able to fund this work sooner or later,” he says.

Columbia graduate student Tyler Poore is another resident entrepreneur. His startup, Exsponge, is developing antimicrobial polymers. Poore says that he’d been thinking about a startup for a long time, but didn’t want to do it within Columbia, and didn’t have the financial backing yet to support, say, a five-year lease for wet lab space in the city.

“It’s pretty cheap, which is good for smaller companies who are pre-Series A funding like we are; it’s close to Columbia, so we have facilities; plus we have the network at Columbia at too, so we can talk to people there about research aspects as well,” Poore says.

The monthly fee is each scientist’s only cost. It gives them access to a desk, lab equipment, wet lab space, and legal help from biotech lawyers (WilmerHale is a sponsor) if needed. Harlem Biospace is also adding classes about biotech entrepreneurship that it plans to stream online, according to Sia.

Harlem Biospace doesn’t take any equity in these startups.

Entrepreneurs have to apply for the space, and set out milestones for what they’d like to achieve in the near term. Each application is then reviewed by an advisory board of venture capitalists (New Leaf Venture Partners, OrbiMed Advisors), representatives from pharmaceutical companies (GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson), and others.

If they’re selected, each scientist has to commit to work in the space for at least six months. The idea is that each scientist would be ready to move out into a bigger location in no more than three years, but Sia concedes that’s “flexible.”

“We just want to see, you’ve thought about this, and you’re making progress,” he says.

All of this came together in less than a year for Sia, the Columbia professor who … 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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