Part II: Building Biotech in NYC- Shortcomings and Prospects of Establishing a Bioscience Hub

The U.S. bioscience industry  outpaces the overall national private sector

The U.S. bioscience industry outpaces the overall national private sector

By Danielle Pasquel

New York City aspires to become one of the leading bioscience clusters rivaling the San Francisco Bay and Cambridge/Boston areas, but falls short because it lacks sufficient infrastructure to foster technology development and translation into start-up companies. NYC has all the raw resources: the world’s highest concentration of academic research institutions, which collectively pump out more bioscience PhDs than any other US city, ranks #3 in the nation for NIH funding, and contains an abundance of venture capital. And yet, commercial bioscience activity is relatively slow-paced.  Why is translating basic research into start-up companies so challenging in NYC? What city- and state-level measures are being taken to energize the bioscience industry?

“New York is not doing its best at building a friendly environment for biotech entrepreneurship,” Dr. Nathan Tinker, Executive Director of the New York Biotechnology Association (NYBA), addressed the Einstein audience.  On February 27th in LeFrak Auditorium, the newly founded Einstein Entrepreneurship and Biotechnology Club hosted their first event, featuring Dr. Tinker as the invited speaker with hopes to introduce the Einstein community to the industry side of the bioscience field and job opportunities that may be available to them.  Dr. Tinker’s slides were filled with countless statistics, tables, and graphs illustrating the state of NYC’s bioscience landscape mostly in terms of dollars compared to the rest of the country.

Battelle/BIO released an extensive report last year detailing the current state and recent trends of the bioscience industry and concluded that “a strong bioscience industry base offers the United States of America, as well as each of the 50 states, Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia, a high value economic driver.” The bioscience industry has consistently demonstrated that it outpaces other knowledge-based industries, including computer technology, in economic growth and creation of high-value jobs, comprising a significant segment of the US economy. Additionally, although by no means immune, the bioscience industry proved to be quite resilient after the recession compared to other industries.

Over the past decade (data acquired from the period 2001-2010) the bioscience industry has grown faster than the US private sector as a whole. Employment in the biosciences has increased by 6.4% while that of the overall private sector has decreased by 2.9%. Furthermore, the bioscience industry not only creates jobs, but it creates jobs of higher value and higher pay that can be filled by individuals with diverse training backgrounds.  For example in 2010, bioscience salaries averaged to almost $83,000 per year, 79% greater than the national average in all private industries—and this gap is widening—meaning bioscience salaries are rising faster.

The NYC bioscience industry is meager compared to other leading US bioscience clusters, which is surprising since New York is third in rank in NIH funding after California and Massachusetts. Bioscience employment in California and Massachusetts has grown by 13 and 15.1%, respectively, from 2001-2010, while it has declined in New York by 0.3% during the same time period.  In 2010, bioscience employees in California and Massachusetts earned average annual salaries of almost $97,000 and $106,000, respectively, while employees in New York earned a significantly lower $74,000.  These figures are enough to dissuade bioscience job seekers in New York, especially new PhD grads, from searching within NY and instead move out of state where jobs are more plentiful and pay more.

Why haven’t the prospects for bioscience employment in NY been as bright as they are in other leading states? Although there are various factors that come into play, the immediate answer is the relatively low number of companies that spin-off from academic labs. In 2011, each dollar of NIH funding in NY was matched by only $0.02 in venture capital, while that in California and Massachusetts reached $0.53 and $0.43, respectively (massbio.org). The NYC metropolitan region (spanning from New Haven going west to the NY-Pennsylvania border) has the largest bioscience workforce in the US, a high concentration of well-funded and highly productive academic research institutions, yet the research and technology established in these labs are not proportionately translating into new bioscience companies, and thus bioscience jobs.

In a simplified and idyllic scenario, the life history of a biotech company goes somewhat like this: years of laboratory research funded by NIH and other funding entities eventually lead to a technology (i.e. a new drug or diagnostic test). A new start-up company is then established to manage all technical, financial, and legal aspects of developing this technology to fruition. The start-up typically consists of research scientists, business managers, investors, and other staff who each combine their expertise and skills to transform the technology into a product or service ready to be sold. The big bucks then start to roll in and the return on investment begins to materialize.

At this point the company can either run its course toward nonexistence (like most do) or expand to eventually become the next Genentech.  Once these start-ups become later-stage companies, whether medium or massive in size, they become job-creating machines.  Not only do they stimulate economic activity through the wages paid to the workforce, but also through the billions of dollars of tax revenue they provide to the city and state.

Unfortunately this scenario is the exception—not the rule. Why aren’t small biotech companies able to survive and flourish or “start up” in the first place? “You would think that [the over 2 billion dollars of NIH funding last year] would translate into new companies,” Dr. Tinker asserted, “Unfortunately that is not true in NY.”  Of course there are numerous contributing factors, but the underlying issue, at least in the bioscience industry, seems to be the availability of state-level initiatives and legislation that would help coax entrepreneurs, and thus bring in venture capital. Even when companies are started in New York, the majority of them move out of state to regions that already have growth-promoting infrastructure in place, at both the state policy and local community levels.  Of the approximately 30 bioscience technologies that are developed in New York annually, 80% move out of state within 5 years.

State initiatives may come in many forms, including tax credits, grants, investment funds, and financing and loan programs that help biotech companies to germinate, grow, and eventually go public—the ultimate milestone of success.  “That’s the goal in all of this,” Dr. Tinker said, “to create an entrepreneurial pool that builds companies in NYC and keeps them here.”

The Boston metropolitan area, particularly Cambridge, has been the model of success and is indisputably the densest and most vibrant bioscience “super cluster” in the world.  Much of this success has been attributed to early and continual investment in commercial real estate development surrounding the universities and research hospitals beginning as early as the 1980s. This hub is still booming and shows no sign of slowing down as up to an additional $2 billion investment is in motion for renovating and expanding the Kendall Square business complex, including new buildings for Pfizer and Novartis.

Undoubtedly, NYC first needs to invest money into infrastructure—real estate developments in the form of science parks and incubators that have specialized lab facilities and office space for start-up companies at low cost. Apparently this prerequisite has been recognized, as a number of policies and initiatives over the past few years have been implemented, such as the development of bioscience incubators BioBAT in Brooklyn and Cornell Tech on Roosevelt Island, as described in Part I of this article. In addition to providing affordable workspace, the city has launched BioAccelerate NYC Prize, a competition that awards grants for research demonstrating commercial promise, with the ultimate goal of transforming NYC into a bioscience cluster. The city is clearly eager to compete with San Francisco and Cambridge and bold strides towards this end have already been initiated.

The actual “clustering” of the local industry itself is an instrumental determinant of growth because it establishes an “innovation culture” (a buzz word I’ve encountered throughout the industry literature).  This innovation culture is important for inspiring constant innovation (obviously) and fostering collaboration and information exchange between academics, business managers, and financiers (extensive and dynamic social networks are absolutely imperative). Ultimately, having the mere title of “bioscience cluster” or “biotech hub” provides a cushion of certainty for potential investors (at least psychologically) in the notoriously high-risk biotech business—entrepreneurs and investors are probably instinctively more comfortable seeking for and investing in higher-risk biotech ventures in Cambridge or San Francisco rather than NYC based on reputation alone.

Despite this seemingly dire situation, “here is the really really good news that I have to give you tonight,” Dr. Tinker reassured, “the New York metropolitan area [we need to look beyond Manhattan] is now the #1 place to get a bioscience job so you might not have to look as far as you think.” Apparently there are many companies on the verge of great expansion within the next 3 to 5 years that will need a hefty supply of talented bioscience graduates to populate their companies.  Dr. Tinker enthusiastically revealed names such as Contrafect and Acorda, two biotech companies both located in Westchester County who will soon be looking to fill thousands of job positions.  In fact, there is a deliberate effort underway to establish a bioscience cluster in the Hudson Valley region as well (see BioHud Valley).

It is crystal clear that many PhD students and postdocs are exploring alternative career paths given the dearth of job opportunities within academia (and the relatively low pay)—the dismal funding climate and the recent sequester aren’t helping either.  For those of you opting to cross over to industry, whether as a research scientist, manager, or entrepreneur, there are several things you should be doing NOW.

Work on strengthening your “soft skills,” commonly referred to as “people skills,” which are easy to neglect when you’re spending each day in the bubble we call a lab.  These skills will not only help you get the job and succeed at the job, but they will also benefit you in life in general. Next, get to know the industry—read about it, talk about it, and follow related news, especially regarding the companies you are interested in working for. This knowledge will come in handy when you are on the job hunt—it will help you navigate the terrain and hopefully lead you to the most befitting job. Last but not least, network aggressively outside of academia however you can—attend conferences and other targeted events, grow your Linkedin network, and connect with local organizations, such as NYBA, NYC Tech Connect, and Einstein’s very own Entrepreneurship & Biotechnology Club. Ultimately you need to make sure you gain the knowledge, confidence, and professional skills necessary to sell yourself to potential employers.

The state and local community should invest in the bioscience industry not merely because of its great economic impact and job-creating capabilities, but because of the broader impact that the scientific enterprise has on humanity—an investment in bioscience is an investment in the health, healthcare, well being, and happiness of society. In NYC and in other cities across the country, leaders in academia, government, and the private sector have acknowledged this and have responded by placing extra pressure on state and local policymakers to support science from bench to market. With that being said, the bioscience industry in NYC is in fact poised to explode and we should all be excited about this.

Danielle was born and raised in Los Angeles and  graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) with a B.S. in Biology and a minor in Anthropology.  She is currently a PhD candidate at Albert Einstein College of Medicine conducting her thesis research on the function of hepatic nuclear receptor PXR, transcriptional regulation, and the role of post-translational modifications.  In addition to her interests in basic science, she is interested in the application and commercialization of scientific discovery, particularly as it pertains to improving human health. As Deputy Director of the Entrepreneurship & Biotechnology Club, Danielle seeks to promote awareness of the bioscience industry in NYC and career development opportunities beyond academia.  Danielle has strong interests in science policy and communications as well, and is the Editor of the EJBM Blog and a Writing Intern for the Department of Communications & Public Affairs.  

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