by Keisha Thomas
Biotechnology in New York is seemingly primed to explode within a few years. A glaring testament to this is the establishment of the Technion-Cornell Innovation Institute, or simply “Cornell NYC Tech.” In December 2011, the Cornell-Technion partnership won a bidding war to establish a multi-billion dollar high tech college/technology incubator on Roosevelt Island, scheduled to open in 2017. For now, Cornell Tech, which has already welcomed its first “beta” class of eight full-time students pursuing a one-year Cornell Master of Engineering degree in computer science, is housed in Chelsea, in a space generously donated by Google. Students not only take technical classes, but also take business classes and engage in projects with companies, organizations, and other groups involved in the tech industry. The graduate programs are designed to produce individuals that have both the technological expertise and business knowhow that go hand in hand in the entrepreneurial tech world. It isn’t a secret that graduate programs in the STEM fields create tons of “science geeks” and “computer nerds,” who, although brilliant and capable within their own niche, tend to have inadequate “people skills” necessary for navigating through industry.
The upcoming Roosevelt Island campus will be comprised of Cornell NYC Tech academic space, research & development space to be leased by tech start-ups and other organizations, conference facilities, housing, and publicly accessible open space (lots of grassy lawns and trees to enjoy!). Not only will it serve as the physical place where top-notch students will be trained, hi-tech research conducted, and academic-industry relations forged, but it also represents a deliberate effort to boost the NYC economy by providing the talent and facilities necessary for technological advancement, commercialization, and everything in between.
Let’s now focus on specifically the biotech enterprise in NYC. There are many initiatives by both public and private entities to bolster NYC to the levels of the traditionally famed biotech hubs like Cambridge or San Francisco. There seems to be so much push in this direction, but one day it struck me – why is progress so slow in NYC? We have premiere academic research institutions, many hospitals, and of course the Wall Street money men (not to negate the few women working on Wall Street – the point is, ladies, you are still far too few. This can be said about female academics and female decision makers in the biotech industry, but I will save you from a rant) are situated in our own backyard. On the surface, it seems that if there were some magical recipe for building a biotech hub, NYC would have all of the ingredients – but this is not enough. NYC is still lacking the magical oven that is necessary to provide the optimal baking conditions.
One obvious challenge is accessing real estate and up-to-par laboratory facilities. Although we can look forward to the Roosevelt Island development, there are currently only a few existing bioscience incubators and tech parks spread across the city (several more are in various stages of planning). The Alexandria Center for Life Science (formerly the East River Science Park) is touted as being the gem in NYC’s biotechnology crown. Yes, I agree that it is as shiny as can be, but it is not really accessible to the penniless/non-funded start-up companies that are instrumental to the growth of the industry.
The fact that NYC institutions are national leaders in research and receive a large chunk of NIH funding is often equated with being an attractive place for biotech investment – this is simply not the case. Still, while there is extraordinary research ongoing at these premier academic institutions, in part due to the relatively (relative to what you ask, let’s just say relative to zero so you will keep reading) generous NIH funding, there is still a gap in support for early stage technologies which are too risky to attract investment from private investors and venture capital firms. While the Alexandria Center for Life Science is a massive beauty, it is beyond the reach of the academic investigator who just needs that one last key experiment done before cutting 90% of the slides in his/her presentation to pitch to potential investors.
I have heard that for every successful start-up, three start-ups fail (no reference to empirical data included, you scientists). I suspect that these numbers break down to something even more dreadful in the biosciences, where investments are considered to be especially risky. This risk is almost guaranteed by the system, which almost always presents a convoluted path towards FDA approval. So maybe the key here is to somehow make it easier for early stage researchers to spin off a start-up. Yes, if it is easier there may be more failures, but hopefully that will be accompanied by a statistically justified return of success.
The still unaddressed gaping hole looms: who is going to bear the brunt of the failures? Surely the private sector would be unwilling, and in light of the gloomy government funding situation, especially in the wake of the sequester, the support doesn’t look like it will be coming from the federal level. Who is willing to bear the risk of an early-stage start-up in the biosciences? In NYC we are fortunate enough that there seems to be some support coming from the state level. Still, it is insufficient to say the least. Maybe we the scientists, purveyors of goodwill (a slight exaggeration), might have to stand up behind the science we toil – crowd funding at early stages may be a partial solution. Any attempt at crowd funding would require the very independent-thinking, non-herdable scientists to come together – this by itself may prove to be a formidable challenge. Would scientists even be willing to financially back another scientist’s work? After all, we have all tried at one point or another to replicate those published results by repeating the protocol exactly and it just didn’t quite work.
If you wish to learn more and want to get insight into the biotech and business world, you should come to the events hosted by the Einstein Entrepreneurship & Biotechnology Club (admittedly a very shameless plug). We recently hosted a talk by Dr. Nathan Tinker, executive director of the New York Biotechnology Association, who gave us a rundown on the current landscape of the bioscience industry in NYC, spewing out facts, figures, and statistics, and projections for the future. If you missed this one, do not fret, as you still have the chance to attend the next event on April 11th, featuring the Offices of Biotechnology and Business Development, commonly known as the “Technology Transfer Office” at Einstein.
Keisha Thomas is a PhD student at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and founder and president of the Entrepreneurship & Biotechnology Club. The ideas presented here are solely her opinions. She claims to be an amateur observer of current events in the biotech industry.