LabCentral gives start-ups the space and resources to thrive
In 2006, when Peter Parker and I started Cequent Pharmaceuticals, we needed a place to work, to do our science. There were loads of space options for tech companies that only needed a good computer and a high-speed Internet connection to launch a blockbuster, but few options for biotechnology companies like ours. We needed labs with sophisticated—meaning expensive—equipment, and the permitting, infrastructure and people to support it. Getting the right lab space setup took us six months and consumed precious resources, both human and financial, that we should have been spending on science. There had to be a better way.
In 2010, we started to believe that sharing could be the answer. We had just sold Cequent, and Peter and I both started new ventures—Bio-Innovation for Peter and Cambridge Biolabs for me—at the Cambridge Innovation Center (CIC). At that facility, we thrived in the creative atmosphere of the shared space, and decided to try to adapt the co-working model into a shared laboratory environment for biotechnology.
Cambridge Biolabs proved the concept that a biotech can get started on a small scale in a shared lab space. So Peter and I joined forces with Tim Rowe, CIC’s founder and CEO, to found a nonprofit called LabCentral. A US$5 million grant from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center got us started, and we opened in late 2013 on Kendall Square in Cambridge. Over time, we leveraged that funding to bring in nearly $20 million in additional commitments of cash, state-of-the-art equipment and in-kind services.
Filling a Void
Biotech start-ups need lab space and resources to test out, challenge and nurture early ideas. To do that, these budding companies usually need affordable, move-in-ready laboratory facilities. That’s just what LabCentral provides, and more. It gives emerging life science companies the bench space, equipment, infrastructure and services that they need for the early-stage research that is necessary to transition into commercial-stage enterprises.
Nonetheless, it’s the “more” that makes up LabCentral’s “secret sauce.” As the tech world figured out long ago, ideas expand when they can bump, mix and mingle with others; but this rarely occurs in life sciences start-ups, which typically set up in traditional lab settings with distinct and separate accommodations. Mingling happens every day at LabCentral, and deliberately. In fact, a push-me/pull-you exchange of ideas made up a primary requirement in our specifications for LabCentral’s design.
The result is an open floor plan with a very deliberate traffic flow pattern and transparent work, lab and play spaces that inspire collaboration and sharing. The common corridor gently insists that LabCentral’s residents see each other multiple times per day. Labs are strategically located in the middle, with offices and amenities at either end. A key to the flow is the café. Food and good coffee bring people out of their workspaces, encouraging engagement and interaction, as do regular “lunch and learn” programs, big-screen movie and sports-viewing parties, and social- and business-networking events.
We quickly learned that Peter and I were not alone in thinking that start-ups in biotech needed LabCentral. In 14 months, 29 early-stage companies that work in the life sciences moved into LabCentral, and about 125 residents work here every day.
Upon moving in, the typical company consists of four people or less, most of them from academic institutions or teaching hospitals. To move forward with their technology, they have already secured the rights to the underlying intellectual property through an option or a license agreement. Many are repeat founders or CEOs with experience launching and growing life science ventures. Others are first-time entrepreneurs.
Having started working at LabCentral, companies may grow, adding headcount quickly. Because they have access to millions of dollars worth of the best lab equipment possible, they can perform experiments that they could never have dreamed of if they had to do it alone. What’s more, they can spend their capital and time on advancing their science rather than buying equipment or building infrastructure. This gives them the flexibility to morph their original vision into one with greater promise, to reach their milestones more quickly, and makes it more likely for them to succeed overall.
Although some might call LabCentral an incubator, we eschew that term. It suggests that biotech start-ups are fragile, needing life support to survive. The opposite is true for the companies we select to take residency here. So, we
call ourselves a launchpad—speeding strong companies to take off. We accept only start-ups with the highest potential. In 2014 alone, our residents brought in more than $200 million in venture capital and other sources of funding. That’s about the same amount of venture capital raised by all of Switzerland’s biotech companies in 2014.
Providing biotech entrepreneurs with a fertile environment with the best infrastructure, equipment, services and programming to enable their unfettered practice of science on day one is LabCentral’s raison d’être. Already, LabCentral is at the center of the Kendall Square bioinnovation ecosystem, which fosters collaboration and creative exchange of science and business ideas among our entrepreneurs and the countless scientists, thought leaders, industry experts and potential funders who work at the academic- and industry-research institutions, venture firms, law practices and equipment/service suppliers nearby.
The LabCentral environment provides tremendous flexibility that spurs innovation. As Michael Schrader, cofounder and CEO of Vaxess Technologies, explains: “LabCentral has allowed us not to expend a ton of money for equipment or long-term leases. As we look to expand, we have grown our network of contacts tenfold through the collection of companies at LabCentral, compared to operating on our own. We love the facility, the open floor plan and comingling with other teams who are not directly competing with our science, but rather complementing it— facing the same challenges in fundraising, science and business development, from whom we can learn and with whom we can share to the benefit of all.”
Schrader’s neighbors agree. “LabCentral makes it as easy to start a biotech company as it is to start a purely IT company,” says P. Shannon Pendergrast, cofounder and chief science officer of Ymir Genomics. “It provides the critical infrastructure, including sophisticated scientific equipment bio-innovators need to excel.” Most important, he adds, it allows Pendergrast and his fellow bioentrepreneurs the freedom to focus on the work at hand: “All I have to do is science.”
Johannes Fruehauf is the president and executive director of LabCentral. For more information, visit www.labcentral.org.
Illustration by Keith Negley
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