Innovative organizations create space for scientist entrepreneurs to team up, scale up, and bring their ideas to life
“Crazy-smart people come here from all over the country, all over the world.”
Meet founders of BioLabs/Launch Bio/Lab Central
“There’s nowhere to hide here,” says Johannes Fruehauf, PhD, co-founder and president of LabCentral. That’s because the labs and offices at the thriving life science co-working space in Cambridge, Massachusetts have glass walls.
“What we’re doing is framing people’s behavior patterns through design and architecture. Initially, some people are taken aback. Especially if they’ve come out of a very closed-up university lab environment,” he explains. “But the majority of people quickly see how this helps them meet, interface, and hopefully make friends with other people, and to bring collaborators in on their projects. And that’s really the way to make science progress today.”
At LabCentral’s core is a 70,000 square-foot facility in Cambridge’s Kendall Square science innovation hub. It currently offers fully permitted laboratory and office space for 75 startups of varying sizes comprising approximately 500 resident scientists and entrepreneurs. LabCentral also offers administrative support, skilled laboratory personnel—and pretty much everything else that early-stage companies need to get started.
The experiment in fostering cutting-edge science has yielded results: LabCentral has become a thriving center of life science and biotech innovation.
“Crazy-smart people come here from all over the country, all over the world to study at MIT or Harvard or any of these other great Boston-based universities,” Fruehauf explains. “And many of them are the ones who create these new companies, so they have awesome ideas in terms of how to address medical needs.
“For example, this morning I was on a phone call with a company developing a new treatment for ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease), and there are new cancer breakthroughs and approaches to dementia—an incredible depth and strength of science is happening here.”
You can’t do it in your kitchen
A decade ago, nothing like LabCentral existed. The idea was sparked by Fruehauf’s own experience as a scientist and founder of biotech companies. He discovered that for scientists coming out of academia who want to start a science-driven company, one of the biggest obstacles is the lack of permitted and equipped lab spaces in which to do the work.
“You can’t do it at home. You can’t do it in your kitchen or your garage, and you can’t even do it at the university because typically the university would then own the intellectual property—the discovery, data, and patents that come out of your work,” he explains. “So, that means in order to start a science-driven company, you would have to create a space with a lab attached.”
But getting a lab up and running is expensive—and therein lies the paradox.
“Before you know whether your science is going to work, you have to find and spend millions of dollars to even get to do your first experiment,” Fruehauf says. In fact, he experienced what he calls “this inefficient way of doing business” several times with startup projects before concluding that there must be a better way.
A solution born of a crisis
Fruehauf’s “better way” began with BioLabs, which Fruehauf co-founded in 2009 as a traditional, revenue-driven contract research organization (CRO) serving venture capitalists and startups.
“We offered these investors our ability to do their science for them to see if it could be replicated,” he explains.
This fulfilled an urgent need: at that time, a large percentage of published science, even in highly ranked journals, was found to be extremely hard to replicate. In the industry, it came to be known as a “crisis of reproducibility.”
“For a venture capital investor, that’s bad, because they have to rely on the published record to make their decisions. So that’s where we came in and how we got started,” Fruehauf says.
BioLabs would sometimes let promising startups stay and work in their lab—that’s how they realized the full extent of the need for turnkey startup lab spaces.
“We didn’t build a purpose-built lab for others to use as the first step,” says Fruehauf. “We evolved the business model over several years and began to scale up.”
Scaling up to meet more challenges
BioLabs evolved into the world’s first chain of commercial life science co-working spaces; think of it as the WeWork of science, now located in 9 cities on both coasts of the US with more on the horizon, even internationally. The scale-up also led to the creation of LabCentral as a spin-off of BioLabs—both are science co-working spaces; the difference is that LabCentral was formed as a grant-funded nonprofit.
Fruehauf and his team soon identified another challenge facing the startups working at both BioLabs and LabCentral— that there’s more to building a company than just having a great place to do the science.
That led to the creation of a third organization: LaunchBio.
The CEO that’s programming scientists for market success
“If you’re a first-time entrepreneur leaving a research lab, or you’ve licensed some technology and you’re working on it, you’re probably really good at the science; but you may not know very much about anything else when it comes to starting a company,” says Joan Siefert Rose, LaunchBio’s CEO. We spoke with her to find out more about how LaunchBio helps teams working at BioLabs and LabCentral to get their businesses off the ground.
“There’s team-building, hiring, recruiting, fundraising, regulatory strategy, pricing, marketing—there are a number of things people need when they are running a company like this for the first time,” she says, adding, “That’s the piece that we bring in.”
LaunchBio’s programming helps new science startups connect with experienced advisors and develop skills they may not have learned in the lab—for example, how to convincingly explain to nonscientists why their technology will make a real difference for patients.
The key to a lab and the key to scientific breakthroughs
We asked Siefert Rose about how working with a partner like Thermo Fisher Scientific, a platinum sponsor for the BioLabs network that helps equip their facilities, is also an example of the importance of collaboration—the key to what Fruehauf calls “the way to make science progress today.”
“As BioLabs has grown, Thermo Fisher has been there every step of the way,” she declared. “Not only supporting the innovators within the space, but also by supporting BioLabs as they’ve expanded. That is a nice part of the story, and really speaks to collaboration.”
She also emphasizes the human element of this collaboration. “I’ve enjoyed working with the Thermo Fisher team both in their role as strong partners with the BioLabs network and as people. I often say to Thermo Fisher reps, ‘You are real experts in so many areas.’ So we’ve had people from Thermo Fisher present at our programs, providing expertise and advice, and it’s a tremendous resource of industry knowledge to help the entrepreneurs get from the lab to a really solid company. And part of the opportunity is for them to deepen their relationship with a company they already know and trust.”
Fruehauf concurs. “Thermo Fisher was one of our very first industry sponsors, and I’m grateful for that. If you walked into LabCentral today, for example, you’ll see a ton of instrumentation from Thermo Fisher brands. It’s a very important sponsorship for us, giving us access to best-in-class equipment and technical support.” He explains that collaborations like the one with Thermo Fisher are truly the key to helping solve major scientific challenges.
“Breakthroughs in the complicated science that we’re dealing with today can only be achieved through collaboration,” he explains. “That’s why every time I’m asked to give a lecture about what we do at LabCentral, I start with a photo of a big crowd of happy scientists standing in front of LabCentral. Because that’s exactly what we’re trying to do—to create community.”
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