By Kambiz Shekdar, Ph.D.
We’ve all heard how COVID has emptied office towers, how CEOs are struggling to bring employees back to the office, and how reluctant employees are holding on to their new stay-at-home routines and/or greener pastures in states with more space, breathable air, and lower costs of living. Times change; and from CEOs to new hires, we may have to change with them. But new developments may also provide opportunities to build back New York City better, at least when it comes to biotechnology.
It may sound jarring to think about more lab space in the city, with ongoing investigations into the possibility that a lab leak resulted in the COVID pandemic. We have also seen how lack of community engagement has created so much distrust around the COVID vaccines. Science cannot progress if we leave our communities behind, but if we take safety and citizens’ concerns seriously, and with the highest level of transparency, progress can be made.
From The Rockefeller University and Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center on the Upper East Side to Columbia University Medical Center on the Upper West Side, along with New York University Medical Center downtown, to name a few, our city already has some of the world’s leading research institutions. However, we have always lagged in the biotech sector, losing start-ups and their economies to New Jersey, Boston, the San Francisco Bay Area, and Southern California which compete for them.
In October, 2020 a New York Times article, “In a Battered New York Office Market, Life Science Is Flourishing,” reported that laboratory space is increasing in the city. In fact, it is filling up faster than it can be put up. Could it be that the potential glut in office space in the city could be solved by transforming some of it into additional biotech space?
With creative thinking and by working together with leaders in biotechnology, real estate, and the community, the incoming mayor and the new city council may have an unprecedented opportunity to reimagine and rebuild the city’s economy, as one that plays catch-up to one that leads the world in biotechnology instead.
Not every building in the city was constructed for accommodating biotechnology. Research lab space requires buildings with big bones—high ceilings and, ideally, room to grow. Perhaps, for some of the largest buildings with multiple tenants, each of which is currently leasing several floors not completely occupied, incentives can be made available to landlords and tenants alike to encourage them to consolidate their office spaces on to only certain floors, effectively pooling open spaces into entire floors that could then be outfitted for biotech use. Financing the build-out of biotech space is something the city already knows how to do thanks to buildout of the Alexandria Center for Life Science led by the Partnership Fund for New York City. Many companies would stand in line to fill, and rent, the newly available space. Also, biotech space rents for a premium compared to regular office rates.
Even more ideal would be if the city would help to foster and create the world’s first state of the art biotech research hub for nonprofit research foundations. To my knowledge, such a biotech hub does not yet exist anywhere in the world; but if we build a magnet to attract all the best charitable research foundations worldwide, the available data, demand, and available trends suggest that they will come!
The lack of equitable global access to COVID vaccines shined a spotlight on how our global healthcare system is broken, especially when it comes to breakthrough biotech innovations. By developing and reserving some of the city’s excess space specifically for nonprofit research organizations, New York City may well act as the world’s capital city by helping to accelerate the development of a more equitable healthcare environment.
As goes the motto of The Rockefeller University, “Scientia pro bono humani generis.” Science for the good of humankind.
Rockefeller University alumnus and biotech inventor Kambiz Shekdar, Ph.D., is the president of Research Foundation to Cure AIDS and LGBTQ editor at WestView News. To support RFTCA, go to https://rftca.org/.