As the child of a military physicist, Richard Lifton was forced to move around a lot, from Washington, DC, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Ankara, Turkey. As an adult he settled in Connecticut, where he became a renowned geneticist at Yale University.
Now he’s on the move again, relocating to New York, where he faces perhaps his biggest challenge yet: serving as president of one of the city’s famed research institutions, Rockefeller University, and in so doing taking over for Marc Tessier-Lavigne, someone widely seen as igniting the city’s biotech scene.
“It’s just an incredible opportunity in the most vibrant city in the world,” Lifton says. “There’s a tremendous life sciences community in New York and I think there’s an awful lot that can be done here.”
Yet the 62-year-old Lifton has come along at a precarious time for New York biotech, which has historically lagged behind more established life sciences hubs in Boston and San Francisco at turning its research into homegrown companies. While the narrative has begun to change for biotech in New York over the past five years thanks to the formation of some incubators, high-profile startups, collaborative initiatives between institutions, and the arrival of biotech investors like Versant Ventures, Accelerator Corp., Flagship Ventures, and Arch Venture Partners, the city still has years of work ahead. Lack of both wet lab space and affordable living space continues to hold New York’s biotech businesses back from truly capitalizing on the research of the city’s academic institutions.
“It’s wildly underdeveloped,” Lifton says of New York’s life sciences scene. “It’s not impossible [to build the city’s biotech ecosystem], it’s doable, but there are certainly are challenges to making it happen.”
One challenge is that over the past year a number of the city’s key life sciences leaders have gone elsewhere, or announced plans to leave. Tessier-Lavigne became Stanford’s president on Sept. 1. Weill Cornell Medical College dean Laurie Glimcher will begin running the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston at the end of the year. Gillian Small, the vice chancellor for research at the City University of New York, just left for Farleigh Dickinson in New Jersey in August after a roughly 15 year stint. And Lenzie Harcum, who had been overseeing the New York City Economic Development Corp.’s life sciences work, left the agency last month for the New Jersey Economic Development Authority.
These changes have left a leadership void in New York, all during what Tessier-Lavigne had called a “fragile time in the [city’s] growth” at the annual meeting of the trade organization NewYorkBio in May. “It can’t be too difficult to overcome [the real estate] hurdle,” he said at the time. “If it is, we’ll find that the people who’ve been drawn here to start things will pack up their bags and go back to places where it’s easier to do it.”
That’s the situation Lifton is stepping into as he takes over Rockefeller. Onlookers are waiting to see … Next Page »