Thirty years ago, the idea of starting a biotech venture in Connecticut was rare, if not unheard of. The obvious biotech hotbeds in the United States were in Boston and South San Francisco — famously dubbed “Genetown” and “Biotech Bay” among industry professionals and job seekers.
But in recent years, that perception has changed — now, the thriving biotech ecosystem in New Haven has completely saturated available biotech lab spaces.
Yale’s Office of Cooperative Research, or OCR, helps Yale faculty commercialize their research and put their technology on the market. With the combined efforts of Yale faculty, OCR, design firms and venture capitalists in Connecticut, 40 to 50 new biotech ventures have emerged in the New Haven area in the past 10 years.
“I remember when we first got here in 1996, Yale was trying to get three to four venture-backed biotech startups per year, and people thought we were crazy, because there wasn’t that level of activity at the time,” said Jonathan Soderstrom, managing director of the OCR. “We actually averaged over three or four per year, and gradually reached about ten a year.”
In his 23-year tenure with the OCR, Soderstrom has facilitated the rapid development of the biotech startup landscape in New Haven. During this time, prominent companies like Arvinas and Alexion — both publicly listed on the NASDAQ — and Biohaven, a publicly traded firm on the New York Stock Exchange, emerged in the Elm City.
“It’s always about curing the disease,” Soderstrom said. “For most faculty members, just publishing a paper isn’t enough. From what they understand about the pathway of a disease, they want to develop therapeutic inhibitors of that pathway. Seeing the technology all the way from an idea in a laboratory of a faculty member to FDA approval on the market as a trademark drug, you just get a rush.”
According to Soderstrom, nine drugs developed by Yale faculty in these New Haven biotech lab spaces have entered clinical trials in the past year. Arvinas, founded by Craig Crews, professor of chemistry and of molecular, cellular and developmental biology, recently administered treatment to its first cohort of breast cancer patients, Soderstrom said.
Arvinas’s drug, which uses protein degradation as a novel therapeutic method, shows promise as a platform technology, or a treatment that can be applied to many different types of cancer, according to Tim Shannon, venture capitalist at Canaan Partners.
According to OCR, New Haven startups based on Yale intellectual property have raised more than $1 billion in venture capital funding and $11 billion in public markets in 2018.
With the success of these New Haven-based biotech ventures, Soderstrom noted that ventures by Yale faculty in remote locations such as South San Francisco and Cambridge have become much more infrequent.
In a video published by OCR, University President Peter Salovey expressed that he is “especially proud when a faculty venture is able to remain in the New Haven area,” as that represents the kind of relationship that Yale strives to cultivate with its host city.
Yet, despite this enthusiasm for locally incubating Yale’s biotech ventures, New Haven is experiencing a shortage of lab space for new faculty ventures that are now looking to set up shop.
Alexion and Arvinas both started in Science Park, an incubator space in New Haven that supported more than 30,000 square feet of space for research and development facilities. However, Science Park has now reached full capacity.
“We see more people wanting to be in New Haven, but we don’t have enough biotech lab space,” said Robert Skolozdra, partner at Svigals + Partners, an architectural design firm that designs laboratory spaces for biotech firms in New Haven and around the region. “We don’t have another Science Park, and we need another.”
Skolozdra works with developers, building owners and sometimes directly with biotech companies to procure and design lab space that provides both the technical infrastructure required for research and the aesthetic branding for successful presentation to investors. For most of Skolozdra’s clients, the question of procuring lab space is constrained by what they can afford — lab space in New Haven has become more expensive than in adjacent towns like Branford.
Despite the pronounced need for the development of new incubator spaces to support biotech research facilities, the state has been reluctant to provide sufficient funding for this endeavor, according to Skolozdra.
In March, BioCT, an organization of biotech industry professionals in Connecticut, planned to partner with a cooperative workspace company, District New Haven, to develop a 16,000 square-foot incubator space. The project was expected to receive state funding.
But the plan went awry.
“Lab spaces require infrastructure that ordinary offices do not need, and the state of Connecticut backed out of the plan because of the status of the current bond diet situation. [Svigals and Partners] was a finalist for the project, but the state decided not to fund that project, so it got canceled,” Skolozdra said.
Skolozdra suggested that Yale should cooperate with private investors to find incubator space. The issue is a time-pressing one — Yale faculty are currently looking for lab spaces in New Haven, and the earliest timeline for opening new lab spaces is projected to be a year from now, according to Soderstrom.
“[Finding more lab space] is a high-priority issue for us, and lots of people are working on it,” he said.
Nonetheless, Soderstrom projected that the biotech ecosystem at Yale is headed “nothing but upward.” The successes that Yale-backed ventures are seeing in the present are at an unprecedented level, he said.
The Office of Cooperative Research was founded in 1982.
Viola Lee | firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction, Sept. 12: A previous version of the article quoted Skolozdra as having said that the state of Connecticut backed out of the construction of new lab space because they did not want to provide the additional expenses and infrastructure required of constructing laboratory spaces. In fact, he had explained in a later part of the interview that this was due to the status of the current bond diet situation in Connecticut. The article also quoted Skolozdra as having said Svigals and Partners was selected for the project, but in fact, Skolozdra stated that Svigals and Partners was selected as a finalist for the project.