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Ahead of June 21 Xconomy Event, NY ‘Expats’ Talk Big Apple’s Biotech Future

Xconomy National — 

Momentum has been building for New York biotech for several years now. But the life sciences sector still remains more of an afterthought in a city better known for its financial might. While several ingredients are already in place in New York—a dense, mixed population; several high-profile research and academic centers; and plenty of cash—it will take years, if not decades, for biotech to be the city’s calling card.

In anticipation of Xconomy’s latest New York biotech event, “Bringing Back the Expats” on Thursday, June 21, we asked a few experts and featured speakers their thoughts on the state of the scene.

Tickets are still available for the exclusive forum and networking event at the Alexandria Center for Life Science, which will focus on tapping into the network of biopharma veterans who are ex-New Yorkers to help build up the city’s biotech startup scene. Learn more.

Xconomy: How would you describe where the New York biotech ecosystem is right now, compared to other life sciences clusters?

“Promising,” says David Epstein, executive partner at Cambridge, MA, venture firm Flagship Pioneering and a speaker at the event. “More and more people talk about New York as an attractive destination.”

Ex-New Yorker Steve Holtzman, a veteran of Biogen and Millennium Pharmaceuticals and the president and CEO of Cambridge-based Decibel Therapeutics, agrees that it’s “potentially, a major emerging powerhouse” with cornerstones such as important life science research departments and research hospitals.

Yet New York lags behind other established hubs, like Boston and San Francisco, considerably. Where does it fall short? “Concentration of other young biotechs, concentration of life-science VCs, and, with that, the concentration of folks who are part of the startup/young biotech ecosystem,” says Holtzman, who will also speak at the event.

X: What would make you hesitant about starting a biotech in New York, and on the other hand what would make you excited?

The lack of lab space remains an issue, Epstein says. “New York needs to continue to deal with making available competitively priced lab space, less expensive housing,” and ensure taxes are not a deterrent to employees, he adds.

Vicki Sato, co-chair of the advisory council of LifeSci NYC (the city’s 10-year, $500 million biotech initiative) says New York hasn’t boosted its open lab space fast enough. “We risk losing some outstanding companies that have the funding to grow aggressively,” she says.

But Michael Aberman, president and CEO of Quentis Therapeutics—a New York biotech startup that closed a $48 million Series A round this year—sees improvement on this front. “The city and state have put the right incentives in place, and I expect [the lab space problem] to be gone in the next year or two,” he says, noting that three new biotech incubators—Alexandria LaunchLabs, JLABS, and BioLabs@NYULangone—are either open or soon will be.

Holtzman wouldn’t hesitate to launch a company, either. “There is emerging risk capital that is local,” he says. Plus, “public transport for young families who feel they have to leave the city to raise kids is [in fact better] than Boston or San Francisco…[it’s] one of the small handful of truly world-class cities.”

X: In what aspect do you feel New York biotech has made the most progress?

Aside from the $1 billion the city and state have already committed to the sector, “the research science environment is rich,” says Sato. “And there is much greater commitment and energy to see that research ‘go commercial,’” with tech transfer offices at various universities developing new and unique ways to turn their research into products.

Holtzman agrees. “This makes a big difference in terms of the ability to take advantage of and unleash the city’s rich academic and biomedical research infrastructure,” he says. New York now needs “a critical mass of entrepreneurs, risk capital providers, and company starters.”

“I also believe and have found that there are many extremely talented scientists and biotech executives that want to either stay in New York or come back to New York,” says Aberman. “That is an advantage for a young biotech looking to recruit top talent.”