A host of new pharmaceutical, medical, and biotech companies are at work in West Harlem in a new shared office space started by a Columbia professor.
Harlem Biospace, located in a former factory on 127th Street and Amsterdam Avenue, celebrated its opening at Rockefeller Center on Tuesday.
The incubator offers communal office and lab space to 16 biotech startups—including firms developing new treatments for arthritis, gene-based therapies, and cures for rare diseases—which have been doing research since Nov. 1.
Sam Sia, the biomedical engineering professor who founded the incubator, said he hopes it will change the startup culture at Columbia—something he finds less prominent compared with universities like MIT and Stanford.
“Columbia is lacking that entrepreneurial culture,” Sia said. “It's certainly lacking a startup community that is geographically close to the community. So I think there's a huge opportunity to try to nucleate a biotech cluster near Columbia.”
Though the incubator isn't affiliated with Columbia, Sia hopes it will have a mutually beneficial relationship with Columbia, especially with the Manhattanville campus going up just a few blocks away. Starting next year, the space will host workshops and classes on biotech topics.
Sia said that he modeled Harlem Biospace after similar tech incubators in the city, but he added that the need for wet lab space posed specific challenges for the endeavor.
“It's more complex for biotech. You need to have the infrastructure, wet labs, centrifuges, and incubators,” he said. “It's not just a desk.”
On the first floor of the former confectionary laboratory, designer wooden desks and copper lamps sit under ventilation pipelines and sprinklers. A room off to the side contains centrifuges, incubators, refrigerators, and other lab equipment—materials that Sia says individual startups wouldn't be able to afford on their own.
“I think there's a lot of great ideas out there, and a lot of great people. But to get started they need an affordable wet lab space,” Sia said. “You're a startup, your focus should be on research, not real estate.”
Already 22 out of the 24 available desks have been rented, some for as long as three years.
Dr. Michael H. Tirgan, president of Tirgan Biopharmaceuticals and a tenant in the incubator, said that the resources at Harlem Biospace allow him to network with other startups.
“I am a physician, I am not an industrialist. I don't know the ins and outs of building a successful company,” he said, adding that the legal services “help me properly structure my company.”
“What I get from this space is a lot more valuable than the $995 per month rent,” Tirgan said.
Tirgan is doing research on keloids, a growth of excess scar tissue. He hopes to come up with better treatment methods for the little-understood condition.
“There is no pharmaceutical company that is interested in this disease. The treatments for this disorder are from 40 to 50 years ago,” he said. “We don't even know how many people have this disease.”
Sia said he hopes startups like Tirgan's can fill the development gap he sees larger biotech companies having.
“There is a dearth of innovation in biotech companies,” Sia said, whereas in “the tech world there are new things being discovered.”
Only one month after Harlem Biospace's opening, Sia said that the positive response has him thinking about expanding the incubator.
“I hope this is the beginning of a biotech cluster in Harlem,” he said.
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