CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — As a former investment banking analyst in Britain who still owns a pricey three-bedroom flat in Central London, Scott Robinson should know a good real estate deal when he sees one.
So why does the 36-year-old biotechnology entrepreneur pay $4,600 a month to lease an ordinary laboratory bench and a couple of shelves in Cambridge?
“People find it unfathomable,” said Robinson, the founder, president, and chief scientific officer of MicroQuin, a startup working on potential cancer drugs.
In fact, says the British-born cell biologist, it’s a no-brainer. The bench is at LabCentral, the five-year-old Kendall Square nonprofit that leases laboratory space to incubating biotechs. That puts him at ground zero in what is arguably the world’s most robust life-sciences hub.
In addition to the bench, he gets access to a lot more — including millions of dollars in laboratory equipment that he could never afford himself, the advice of other young scientists working at benches in the brick-and-glass building, amenities like unlimited espresso and two nap rooms, and contact with local drug developers, venture capitalists, and academics with whom he might do business.
“There’s no other place like this.”
Scott Robinson, MicroQuin
The idea of a giant laboratory shared by dozens of scientists from competing life-sciences startups might have seemed an improbable business model not long ago. But it has become increasingly common in Massachusetts.
The state has more than two dozen incubators, according to the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center. No location is hotter than Kendall Square, where lab space is so coveted that it fetches an average monthly rent approaching $100 a square foot.
Robinson, who has a Ph.D. in cell and molecular biology from Imperial College of London, arrived at LabCentral in November and until recently was MicroQuin’s only full-time employee. (There are two now.) He took a long detour to get to Cambridge — more about that later — but working in Massachusetts has been his unwavering goal.
“I came over from the U.K. specifically to be in Boston, to be in Cambridge, and, ideally, to be in incubator space like LabCentral,” he said. “There’s no other place like this.”
His company has already garnered attention. MicroQuin — the “micro” refers to microbiology, and the “quin” comes from the Gaelic word for wisdom — was one of the 19 early-stage startups that were finalists in the 2018 MassChallenge contest. It also won $750,000 from Boeing and the nonprofit Center for the Advancement of Science in Space. The money will pay for experiments with the firm’s potential cancer medicine on the International Space Station. (Diminished gravity helps to crystalize a protein that the company hopes to use to kill tumors.)
If you visit Robinson’s bench on the second floor of LabCentral, don’t expect to see any mementos of his life outside of work. There are no family photographs (his father is a retired employee of the shipyards in Sunderland, England, his mother a retired medical secretary), no diplomas, no knickknacks. Just a bench covered with test tubes, beakers, and pipettes.
In part, that’s for safety reasons. Robinson runs experiments on cancer cell lines from breast and prostate tissue and doesn’t want to contaminate any cherished belongings.
But it may also be because Robinson is laser-focused on his work at LabCentral. He’s there 10 to 12 hours a day, seven days a week, he said. One minute, he’s removing cancer cells from a freezer kept at minus-157 degrees Celsius. The next minute he’s analyzing the effect of therapeutic compounds on stained cells. When he needs a break, he works out at a nearby gym at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or schedules an hour to sleep in one of two cozy nap rooms at LabCentral.
When LabCentral opened in 2013, skeptics said scientists at rival startups would feel nervous working near one another in a laboratory, out of a concern that their ideas might be swiped, according to Caroline Grossman, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit.
But if Robinson is representative of the 270 scientists and entrepreneurs from 60 startups at LabCentral, humor and schmoozing — not competition — are more the order of the day.
On a recent workday, he wore a gray T-shirt that displayed a mathematical formula — a pun for “I Ate Some Pie.” A young scientist from another startup stared at it, then laughed.
“People look at my chest,” Robinson told a visitor, pretending to be offended. He turned back to the scientist. “Please stop it! It’s indecent.”
Shortly afterward, another scientist at a nearby work station marked VL50 — a biotech startup created by Flagship VentureLabs — said she has helped Robinson when he had questions about an experiment he was running.
“All of us have problems at some point,” said Catherine Cifuentes-Rojas, a molecular biologist whose startup leases five benches at LabCentral. “There’s no reason for us to not help each other.”
As Robinson tells it, he’s fortunate to be able to run experiments at all. While studying for his Ph.D. at Imperial College in London about a decade ago, he said, he identified a protein that could be used as a therapy for breast cancer. But then he got into a legal battle with the school’s technology commercialization arm over who owned the intellectual property. In 2016, the school sent him a letter conceding that it belonged to him.
Robinson said he needed money to wage the legal dispute and to start his company, so he spent eight years working as an investment banking analyst at Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse, and Nomura International in London. At his peak, he said, he earned the equivalent of $300,000 a year.
These days, he said, he has virtually no income and lives on savings. He rides a Bluebikes bicycle to work from his rented apartment in Porter Square. But he has no regrets about leaving investment banking.
“You do get used to the money,” he said. “But I love this.”
This story was first published in STAT’s sister publication the Boston Globe.