In the fall of last year, Gritstone Oncology, a newly minted cancer immunotherapy company, faced a problem shared by many biotechs looking to open up lab operations in Kendall Square—space.
Home to the research centers for a number of big pharmas, along with world-renowned research institutions, Kendall Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts is one of the most highly concentrated hubs for early-stage biotech research. And with money and companies continually flowing in, real estate is both tight and expensive.
At the time, Gritstone was hot off a $102 million Series A financing and eager to prove its science in a highly competitive field. Rather than leasing and building out its own space, Gritstone decided to work with Mass Innovation Labs, a brand-new accelerator touting a unique approach.
“We are their operations team”
Despite being in business for just over a year, Mass Innovation Labs has an impressive line-up of biotech companies which call its laboratory space home. CRISPR Therapeutics, a leading company in the race to develop gene-editing therapies using CRISPR/Cas9 technology, was MI Labs’ first client. Eight other companies besides Gritstone, including Editas Medicine and Radius Health, conduct research out of MI Labs’ space.
'We are an alternative way of looking at the infrastructure side of biotech," said Amrit Chaudhuri, one of three founders who started MI Labs in 2015 and current CEO.
"Very high potential companies have so far come to us and we are their lab space. We are their operations team. We provide everything from the janitorial [services] to the enterprise-scale IT. We do lab design," Chaudhuri said in an interview.
MI Labs offers custom-built lab space capable of supporting chemistry, cell and tissue culture and animal-based research. More than that, MI Labs also helps early-stage and venture-funded biotechs with many of the operations functions that can slow down a newly-financed company: permitting, setting up suppliers, ordering and installing equipment, safety training, managing waste, etc.
"We don't need to extend extra headcount in employees focused on these areas. Obviously when you're an early-stage [company], cash matters and headcount matters," explained Matt Hawryluk, Gritstone’s chief business officer. "For our investors, our board and our leadership team, we want those headcount going to the scientific endeavors."
Time is money
After Gritstone moved into MI Labs in November, it was able to ramp up its programs within weeks and begin generating data—crucial for any biotech looking to partner for its development work.
"Instead of waiting, really sitting on the sidelines doing office work or analysis, we were instead able to do bench science which is really important for moving our program forward," said Hawryluk. "It changes the trajectory of the company."
Imagen Biopharma, a preclinical immunotherapy company, had a similar experience after partnering with MI Labs last August.
"We translated the tech out of the university, had a functioning lab and were generating new data within three months," said Ron Seidel, one of the founders and head of R&D at Imagen.
That time savings is crucial, particularly in competitive areas like cancer and immunotherapy. By reducing the amount of time biotechs need to spend on leasing a space, building out a lab and securing permitting, MI Labs frees up companies to begin their scientific work. With resources flowing to generating data, biotechs like Gritstone and Imagen can move more quickly to the next milestone.
Imagen, which has doubled its space at MI Labs, estimates the partnership saved them six months.
"It takes six months to a year to launch a lab company from an infrastructure perspective, before the first drop of science is being done in your own labs," Chaudhuri said. "We are able to take that down to 2 to 6 weeks."
While that time difference may seem marginal, it can have real results. In May, Gritstone announced a partnership with Immune Design to develop neoantigen-based immunotherapies, aiming to get in the clinic by mid-2017.
"I don't think we would have been able to put something like that together without having the robust data," Hawryluk said. "The robust data was really driven off the ability to get our programs going and that is where our partnership with Mass Innovation Labs really comes in."
Not just for start-ups
The challenge of jumping from academia or start-up phase to clinical development is not a newly diagnosed problem. Other companies, ranging from Big Pharma to lab incubators, have attempted to solve it by offering services which look similar to what Mass Innovation Labs has to offer.
Johnson & Johnson, for example, began its JLABS program in 2012 and now has six sites spread across the U.S. and Toronto. Roughly 100 companies work out of JLABS programs, which provide lab space for preclinical and early-stage research.
Bayer also offers similar 'no-strings-attached' services to nascent biotechs at its innovation centers located around the world.
Other incubators, such as QB3 and Lab Central, tout their shared lab spaces and value as a launch pad for new companies.
But Chaudhuri argues Mass Innovation Labs is unique.
"There are phenomenal incubators out there. But they target a completely different thing. They are targeting proof-of-concept space: How do you take 1-3 people, help somebody prove something so they can get funding and initially spark that early-stage team?"
"But none of those programs are programs people can grow in. You don't grow into a 100-person company in an incubator," Chaudhuri said.
The companies which have signed up with Mass Innovation Labs have, for the most part, been exceedingly well-funded. While they might be starting from a small executive team, many aimed to quickly add staff and space.
CRISPR Therapeutics, which has since 'graduated' from MI Labs, had raised $89 million when it came to MI Lab’s program. Radius Health, which joined in May, is a public company with a market capitalization of nearly $2.5 billion.
Editas Medicine also signed on with MI Labs in May, months after listing on Nasdaq in a $94 million initial public offering.
"We don’t view ourselves just for startups. We think startups get an amazing opportunity launching out of our space…but we have established companies that are coming to us," Chaudhuri said.
Chaudhuri emphasized his view that MI Labs offers a 'pharma-like' operations program, likening the MI Labs team to a chief operations officer.
So far it appears MI Labs has done well in differentiating itself from other incubator and accelerator programs out there, as evidenced by the impressive list of member companies and 90% occupancy rate.
MI Labs hopes to expand and open a similar site on the West Coast, which would roughly double MI Labs size and enable it to open its doors to more companies. And it is not forgetting start-ups either, having recently opened smaller 'innovation suites' catering to earlier stage or less developed companies.