New board position: SUNY Downstate Advanced Biotech Incubator

I am pleased to announce I have been appointed a trustee of Downstate Technology Center Inc., the not-for-profit operator of the SUNY Downstate Advanced Biotechnology Incubator, a 50,000 square-foot wet-lab facility that anchors a two-building “biotech park” nestled along Parkside Avenue in East Flatbush, Brooklyn.

This remarkable incubator – supported by all levels of government and now filled with a range of startup tenants operating mostly in the hardcore biosciences – has been under planning and development since the late 1990s, when I began following the initiative, somewhat before its sponsors even knew anything about me.

Even before the shovels entered the ground, the project visionary at SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University had carefully cultivated the deep, thoughtful support of central Brooklyn’s political leadership. I have seen many similar projects founder when street-smart politicians asked withering and ultimately show-stopping questions like, “Where are the jobs for my working-class constituents – don’t you have to hold a Ph.D. to work here?” However, a critical wing of Brooklyn’s political leadership took a different tack.

At the groundbreaking ceremony in 2002, I heard a then-senior member of Brooklyn’s Black state Assembly delegation, say [what follows is a paraphrase from memory, not a direct quote from the record] “Don’t tell me this facility shouldn’t be in Flatbush. We know that fields like biotech are where the jobs of the future are going to be. You give us the facility, and our people will find the way to take best advantage of it. But without the facility, we will miss that chance.”

And yet, at the time, many people thought a biotech incubator should not, in fact, be built in Flatbush. Some doubted the viability of operating a biotech facility deep in the heart of a generally low-income, mainly African-American and Afro-Caribbean neighborhood, a 40-minute subway ride on the 2 or 5 train from midtown Manhattan (or a car ride of unpredictable length). Skeptics wondered whether investors and bankers, mostly upper middle class and white, would even permit their investees to choose this location.

However, I never had much doubt the project was viable and smart.

First, there was the fact of the local political support – apparently given for the right reasons, from the perspective of community-based economic development.

Second, the site was more affordable than Manhattan since it was land rented to the corporation by the foundation that supports SUNY Downstate (and governance is joint with the Research Foundation for SUNY). This philanthropic base allowed the corporation to develop a facility that it could rent out at far below the Manhattan market for commercial wet-lab space. Manhattan sites may be suitable for companies with a venture-capital deal already in hand, but not necessarily for early-stage life-science entrepreneurs who are bootstrapping, raising angel financing, or relying on non-dilutive grant sources like SBIR.

Aerial view of Downstate Biotech Park

Adapted from image on SUNY Downstate website, used by permission.

Third, and possibly least appreciated by the skeptics, was the nature of the local ecosystem. The adjacent diagram from the incubator’s website shows the boundaries of the park in relationship to SUNY Downstate University ($32 million in total annual R&D expenditures) and its own University Hospital (376 inpatient beds). I have adapted the view to show, just across the street, the gigantic Kings County Hospital Center (627 beds), Brooklyn’s answer to Bellevue Hospital, a gritty but highly capable hospital where interns and residents train under Downstate’s medical faculty and learn how to care for those challenged by a wide range of acute and chronic health conditions. All this – everything from research labs to animal facilities to some of the best clinicians in the city – lies just steps from the incubator door. As is customary in university-affiliated incubators, tenants have access by policy to most university facilities and services, and in this case also to an additional analytical-chemistry lab at nearby Medgar Evers College, a CUNY institution.

In any city other than New York, a thousand beds and $32 million in R&D would constitute a dominant academic medical center – really a credible anchor for a full-featured medical district – and the neighborhood would become a natural locus for biotech and other life-science development. Here in New York City, however, attention is distracted by enormous competitors like NYU/Langone, the New York-Presbyterian campuses at Columbia and Weill Cornell, Mt. Sinai, and Albert Einstein in the Bronx. SUNY Downstate is a smaller institution in terms of federal R&D funds attracted, and the associated hospitals are smaller than and not as wealthy as the giants of Manhattan and the Bronx, but Brooklyn undeniably has a fully qualified academic medical center that cried out for commercial co-development.

Built in phases, together with a chemistry facility down the block originally occupied by Imclone, the incubator has generally filled every new expansion and vacancy. Its development has been further aided by its tax-advantaged status under the START-UP NY Program and a state grant to provide entrepreneurial support services from a third-party contractor (especially important since Downstate is a specialized health-sciences university and has no business school or entrepreneurship programs of its own to complement the incubator space).

The story now catches up with my appointment to the board, to which of course I owe confidentiality, so I’ll leave it here. I understand there is more work to do in order to achieve fully the promise of this project to benefit its community, and I look forward to working with the staff and board to help make that happen.

(The opinions expressed here are solely my own, and not necessarily those of the DTCI board or management, nor of SUNY, Downstate, or any affiliate or supporting organization thereof.)


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