Kendall Squared brings you dispatches from the world’s epicenter for biotechnology and drug discovery.
When a tenant at the new Mass Innovation Labs facility in Kendall Square asked for better coffee, the founders took a scientific approach: a group of samplers, a taste test, and six separate coffee machines.
It took a lot of time, CEO Amrit Chaudhuri acknowledged, perhaps even a silly amount. But as rent-a-lab operations spring up in more cities, the facilities are trying to show resident companies that working there means they can focus on getting their businesses up and running, while everything else will be taken care of.
“We tried building a space that would make companies grow as fast as possible,” said Chaudhuri.
Mass Innovation Labs, which welcomed its first tenant in May, is the largest lab-for-rent location in Kendall Square at 124,000 square feet. It joins Kendall’s LabCentral and a growing number of similar operations around the country that cater to biotech startups looking for lab space with greater flexibility and more bang for their hard-earned fundraising dollars than outfitting their own space.
These facilities are attractive to startups, Chaudhuri said, because they allow tenants to offload the administrative work of getting necessary permits, wrangling suppliers, or staffing a reception area.
“No one thinks about it when they’re starting, but over the course of that first year, [operations] take up so much of the founder’s time,” Chaudhuri said.
LabCentral, a nonprofit that accommodates only about 20 percent of companies wanting to rent space there, is undergoing its own expansion. It’s adding 42,000 square feet of space to its existing 28,000-square-foot site, which should become available in 2017.
Locally, these types of facilities offer another practicality: a relatively affordable place to work in a neighborhood where available space has dwindled and prices are eye-watering. Mass Innovation Labs wouldn’t disclose what it charges, but says it costs less for a company to rent there than it would for a dedicated space in Kendall.
The site, which stretches over three floors previously occupied by Vertex (VRTX) Pharmaceuticals, says 85 percent of its space is either occupied or locked down by incoming companies. The biotechs in the space are not all just getting on their feet, either: Tenants include CRISPR Therapeutics, which has raised almost $90 million, and Gritstone Oncology (GRTS), which announced in October it had raised $102 million in a Series A round. Unlike some other sites where scientists from different companies share lab benches, private office and lab suites dominate here, alongside common kitchens and conference rooms.
Mass Innovation Labs hopes to open locations in the Bay Area and San Diego within the next year and a half. And it intends to build out some shared lab space in Cambridge, Mass., for early-stage companies that just want a lab bench or two.
Other shared labs are likewise branching out from Cambridge to national and international locales. Cambridge BioLabs is helping launch shared lab spaces in Durham, N.C., New York City, and San Diego. The other BioLabs, as they’ll be known, will be affiliated with the Cambridge one but will be separate entities, said Johannes Fruehauf, who founded Cambridge BioLabs and helped start LabCentral.
New York has top-flight academic and medical centers but creates few companies, in part, because of the cost of real estate and the challenge of getting necessary permits, Fruehauf said. “There’s a huge mismatch” between its research output and its biotech scene, he said.
And in the Durham area, rents might be a third of what they are in Kendall Square, but there’s still a shortage of high-quality lab space for startups, said Eric Linsley, an advisor to BioLabs North Carolina.
Another Kendall landmark, the Cambridge Innovation Center, which offers only office space in Cambridge, has opened a lab-and-office location in St. Louis and is building another in Miami. Rotterdam, Netherlands, is its first overseas post, and they’re “having a number of conversations” with other cities around the world, said Sarah Delmar, director of global expansion.
Delmar said the CIC regularly fields requests from people who want an outpost in its city. In screening potential locations, the center searches for talent and ideas that generally stem from nearby universities, and a potential pool of startup investors. Miami, for example, is not known as a major venture capital center, but the city has wealth and serves as a gateway to Latin America.
“We think finding a city that is sort of on the cusp of really blowing up and having a really dynamic innovation ecosystem, those are places we can have a really meaningful impact,” she said.
A central tenet of these facilities is that having so many budding entrepreneurs around each other can inspire new ideas or lead to problems being solved, whether that comes from a formal community event or just gabbing over coffee in the kitchen.
“They go in with an expectation that this will be their office space,” said Mark Moreau, director of operations for the CIC sites in Cambridge, “but they get much more out of it than expected.”