The new Princeton Innovation Center Biolabs incubator facility on College Road East is now open for business, providing space for two dozen startup companies to run experiments, build prototypes, and do all the things that technology and biotech startups need to do — including making copious amounts of coffee.
So far one company has signed on, and nine others have applied and been accepted. Any startup company, whether an academic spinoff or not, is welcome to apply to join the BioLabs. But the decor, subtly splashed with orange accents on some of the furniture and the inside of the coffee mugs, hints at its origins: the facility is sponsored by Princeton University, which has been ramping up efforts to get its science off of the workbench and into the real world.
Until now there have been limited options for university researchers to strike out on their own when their nascent company has just one or two employees. They could rent a lab somewhere in a commercial facility, but this option comes with a lot of startup costs — configuring the space to its needs, obtaining the necessary permits, finding suppliers for materials, and so on. Shared office space in a startup incubator would be a cheaper option, and there are several in the area.
Tigerlabs on Nassau Street offers coworking incubator space but lacks wet lab facilities for biotech companies. The New Jersey Department of Economic Development operates the Commercialization Center for Innovative Technologies (CCIT) on Route 1 in North Brunswick. That facility boasts a brand new building full of labs in addition to office space and everything a biotech startup could want. But it’s half an hour away from the Princeton campus.
Princeton wanted something suitable close by, so the university decided to build it itself. The result is the Princeton Innovation Center BioLabs at 303A College Road East at Forrestal Center in the building formerly occupied by Dr. Reddy, a generic pharmaceutical maker. The space, next to Evotec, a German pharmaceutical company, is custom built for early-stage science startups with relatively small teams.
The Princeton Innovation Center Biolabs will host a ribbon cutting ceremony on Thursday, May 17, from noon to 3 p.m.
The university collaborated with BioLabs, a company that operates incubators in New York, North Carolina, San Diego, Boston, Princeton, Cambridge, and San Francisco. Princeton paid for the facility’s construction, and BioLabs operates it.
Anne-Marie Maman, executive director of the Princeton Entrepreneurship Council, has been involved throughout the whole process of partnering with BioLabs, which operates a network of similar centers around the country. The collaboration was first announced in December, 2016.
“We have a faculty that wants to spin out companies,” Maman said in a recent interview at the newly opened facility. “They want to be entrepreneurial but be close to campus. There was not a close wet lab/dry lab place for them to go to. The EDA is terrific, but it’s half an hour away. Way too far. The Science Center in Philly is terrific, but it’s an hour away on a good day.”
Maman says helping faculty members create businesses helps the university fulfill one of its core purposes. “The university’s unwritten mission is ‘In the nation’s service and the service of humanity,’” she says. “So if university faculty are making discoveries on campus, and those amazing things are just staying on campus, that is not going to be as much a service as those technologies getting out and impacting people and helping the environment,” she says.
Having an affiliated incubator is also a way of attracting and retaining faculty members and graduate students, she says.
From the university’s perspective, it probably doesn’t hurt that Princeton often receives royalties on the discoveries of its faculty members. In 2015, the most recent year that public tax forms are available, the university received $131 million in royalties.
Nishta Rao, director of the Princeton Innovation Center BioLabs, says that of the nine companies that have been accepted by BioLabs, four are from Princeton and the rest are a mixture of local companies and technology being licensed by other universities in the region. Rao said many other companies have shown interest in addition to the ones that have applied so far. Companies can apply at www.princetonbiolabs.com.
The first company to formally sign a lease, and the only one that the BioLabs would mention, is LabScore, a health technology company.
Companies can rent a lab bench in either the wet or dry lab, and that bench comes along with a desk in the open co-working area. Larger private offices are also available. Dry lab benches start at $1,500 per month and are scalable as the company grows, while wet lab benches are $2,500.
Additional desks are available for support personnel, and companies have to rent at least one lab bench in order to get access to a desk. Rao says that while there is a demand for financial technology companies and others that do not need labs, they are not the focus of the BioLabs facility. The incubator does not get any equity in the companies.
Coincidentally, the workbenches and fume hoods at the BioLabs were left over from the previous tenant. Before Dr. Reddy, the building was occupied by Pharmasset, which was a developer of antiviral drugs. The company developed sofosbuvir, a treatment for chronic hepatitis C, at the lab, before being bought out by Gilead Sciences for $11.2 billion in 2012.
“The space has good karma,” Rao joked.
One advantage of shared office space like the BioLabs is that the place is designed to encourage an atmosphere of creativity and to facilitate chance meetings that can lead to new alliances or discoveries. Rao says it is a place for “a vibrant exchange of ideas.”
“There is crosstalk between the companies,” she says. “You’re going to have startup founders and CEOs and serial entrepreneurs communicating with each other.”
All of the companies renting space in the lab share the same dining area, which is meant to lead to socialization — a catalyst to get people together and inspire reactions.
The 31,000-square-foot space has around 70 lab benches with an array of equipment to share, including fume hoods, planned laser cutters and 3D printers, a freezer room rated for tissue samples and bacteria cultures, centrifuges, microscopes, scales, and specialized equipment for the life sciences such as quantitative polymerase chain reaction and high performance liquid chromatography machines.
Maman said that to determine what to put in the lab she surveyed entrepreneurial faculty members and graduate students about the equipment they needed. (They had various suggestions, but they all said good coffee was essential, which explains the presence of multiple high-end coffee makers in the break area.)
Rao said the gear represents about 75 to 80 percent of the common lab equipment that science companies need, which can be a huge savings for a startup. Materials also cost less since BioLabs has contracts with vendors to buy at a discount, which companies can access through a network based platform. “It’s turnkey,” Rao said. “You can get started on focusing on building your company from the get go, and not wasting time setting anything up.”
In addition to the scientific equipment, there are conference rooms including a videoconference room, a cafe, and an event space for public presentations. (In March, the space hosted a talk on blockchain and healthcare.) The event space will also host seminars aimed at members.
Johannes Fruehauf, CEO of Cambridge-based BioLabs, says that scientists tend to be introverts who would prefer to hunker down and work by themselves. But Princeton BioLabs, with its glass-walled labs, is designed to have few places to hide and to break down barriers so that creative collisions can take place.
That said, there are certain barriers that should not be broken by early stage companies. BioLabs takes steps to minimize the chance that intellectual property will be pilfered. When a new company applies to be part of the lab, existing companies at the lab that could be competitors are notified, and they will not be seated near each other. The site also provides lockers for personal items.
Fruehauf says that at the other labs that his company operates, researchers end up helping each other a great deal — showing each other how to use pieces of equipment, and tapping into the all important network of lawyers, accountants, specialists, financiers, and others.
Rao says this network is one of the major selling points of the facility. The BioLabs company touts its ability to connect tenants with venture capitalists, mentors and even big pharma companies. “It just opens up several doors to the companies that are here,” she says. “It gives companies a chance to maximize their capital and be very efficient. They don’t have to spend six to nine months getting set up, ordering equipment, figuring out what safety protocols they should use, and getting connected with vendors.”
Since it was founded in 2009, BioLabs has helped launch around 230 startups in its various locations, with several notable success stories including Compass Therapeutics, a Boston-based immunotherapy company.
BioLabs says it doesn’t just let any company rent space. First, companies have to apply, and the selection process is rigorous — not quite “getting accepted to Princeton” rigorous, but tough nonetheless. Anywhere from a fifth to a third of applicants get in.
The organizers and staff of the Princeton BioLabs have themselves worked on startups. A Princeton alumna, Class of 1984, Maman grew up in Princeton. Her father was noted French professor Andre Maman, and her mother was a librarian at Rutgers. Before joining Princeton, Maman managed the EDA’s incubator facility. Before that, she was the founder of three medical device startup companies in the Philadelphia area.
Rao also has a startup background, both in research and business. She grew up in India, where her parents were high-level government officials. She was most recently senior director of science operations at Kadmon, a New York-based biotech startup, and before that studied biochemistry at Columbia, where she did research under James L. Manley.
There is no requirement for companies at BioLabs to stay in New Jersey once they get beyond the startup stage, but state officials hope that the lab will nonetheless give a boost to the economy, since companies tend to stay in the same area where they were founded, where the founders and early employees live. Fruehauf said the lab would likely create “meaningful jobs” for the area, and not “pizza delivery type jobs.”
“The coworking model can reduce science startup costs by a factor of 10,” he said.
Princeton Vice Provost Paul LaMarche, chairman of the board of the facility, said the BioLabs represents the future of biotech research, as it shifts away from big corporate R&D labs that were once the mainstay of the Route 1 corridor, to small biotech startups founded on university-developed technology that eventually gets licensed to a big manufacturer. “The nature of research is changing,” he said.
Business trade group leaders, including BioNJ CEO Debbie Hart, visited the facility earlier this year for a preview tour.
“We are beyond thrilled that this is happening,” Hart said.
Princeton Innovation Center Biolabs, 303A College Road East, Princeton 08540. 609-423-1540, www.princetonBioLabs.com.