The city government is today asking for proposals on how to use $100 million in funds and city land to create a "life sciences hub" with the goal of making the city competitive with Boston and San Francisco as a place to start biotechnology companies. The money is part of $500 million in resources the city has earmarked to draw biotech investment.

"We have such fantastic research institutions here that we would put ourselves up against anyone and argue that we're the top. But one area where we know that we are not the top is in the commercialization of the life sciences," says James Patchett, President and CEO of the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC). "And, so, we believe that there's a moment in time, right now, where if we put our cards on the table we can be a leader in this field."

There are hard targets: between 2016 and 2026, the investment aims to more than quadruple R&D space to four million square feet, increase NIH funding 30% to $2 billion, quadruple the amount invested annually in New York biotech to $500 million, and increase the number of commercial research jobs by 20% to 20,000.

The competition: the cities where biotech was born, and where it has become a dominant industry. The first biotechnology company, Genentech, founded in 1976, became the center of a South San Francisco research hub there that has continued even as Genentech was bought by Roche, and has included success stories like Exelixis, a developer of cancer drugs, and startups like Denali, focused on neurological disease, and Freenome and Grail, which are trying to develop blood tests to detect cancer. Biotech giants like Gilead and Biomarin are nearby, still in the Silicon Valley area.


The Boston area was home to the next big biotech –Biogen, itself a big success story. Over the past 20 years, the area in Cambridge, Mass., near Biogen – and, not coincidentally, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and not far from Harvard, has become a biotech mecca, home to companies from Alnylam to Sarepta. In 2016, California and Massachusetts each counted about 30,000 biotech workers – about six times as many as New York.

Harold Varmus, who shared in a 1989 Nobel Prize for discovering genes in animal cells that can lead to cancer and went on to run both the National Institutes of Health and the National Cancer Institute, says that he noticed the dearth of a vibrant biotech sector when he took over the presidency of Manhattan's Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in 2000. Varmus had done his science at the University of California, San Francisco, and missed the presence of companies like Genentech and Chiron.

"I very much appreciated the way in which the academic sector and that part of the industrial sector, biotech as opposed to big pharma, had such a productive interaction," he says. Academics could license ideas to companies, or even start companies themselves. As academic jobs for young scientists and government funding waned, industry could provide them. And, if there area lot of researchers in a city, why wouldn't companies follow, he says. "People like to start their companies in the place where they work."

New York City doesn't have MIT, Harvard, or Stanford. But New York State comes in third in the total amount of funding received from the NIH, after California and Massachusetts. And the city has become a dense hub of medical research. There are major medical centers: The Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, New York Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center, The Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, NYU Langone Medical Center, and the Hospital for Special Surgery. There are major research centers, including Rockefeller University, Columbia, and NYU, not to mention the New York Structural Biology Center and the New York Genome Center. A biotech-focused real-estate complex on the east side of Manhattan, called the Alexandria Center for Life Sciences, has yielded early proof that this ecosystem could provide an incubator for biotech companies.

New York is hoping that a new, central hub could be a catalyst for more, mimicking the way a big Massachusetts investment led to Cambridge's biotech boom. Exactly what will it look like? That's not clear, hence the request for proposals.

"People believe in the possibility of New York City," says Patchett. "It's the constant refrain that we hear from people in the industry; that there is a tremendous amount of potential here and we just haven't quite realized it."

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