Incubators Nurture Local Bioscience Startups
by Howard Fine
This article was originally published by Los Angeles Business Journal
Incubators have long been viewed as crucial to jump-start the development of tech, life science and other companies.
But until 2004, Los Angeles County had only one bioscience incubator with lab space, a small facility in Chatsworth that recently went defunct.
Universities had lab facilities, but those were mostly reserved for students and faculty researchers. Outside companies were generally not invited.
Then in 2004, the Pasadena Bioscience Collaborative, now known as the Pasadena Bio Collaborative Incubator, opened its doors, backed by an initial infusion of state funds. It was only a 500-square-foot lab at first, but it represented the first of a new generation of incubators with the aim of giving biotech startups a place to develop and test their therapeutic technologies before either finding buyers or getting Food and Drug Administration approvals to bring their therapies to market.
Since then, several bioscience incubators have opened, including ones associated with UCLA, Cal State Los Angeles, Cal Poly Pomona and the Lundquist Institute, as well as a couple of independent facilities.
Some have closed or morphed into facilities for later-stage companies, including Momentum Biosciences in Culver City, Alexandria Innovation Center in Pasadena, and the Center for Training, Technology and Incubation at Cal Poly Pomona.
“Incubators in general are not money-makers, unless they have partnerships with venture capital firms or other well-funded institutions,” said Ahmed Enany, chief executive of the Southern California Biomedical Council, a Westwood-based trade group.
But as some bioscience incubators have closed, new ones have opened to take their place.
Two years ago, an incubator came online at the Lundquist Institute in Carson run by BioLabs, a Cambridge, Mass.-based incubator operator. Another, LA BioSpace, opened earlier this year at Cal State Los Angeles.
There’s also an incubator just outside L.A. County in Thousand Oaks, next to biotech giant Amgen Inc. Called the Ventura BioCenter, it was founded nearly a decade ago by a former Amgen scientist.
All of these incubators have one thing in common: shared “wet lab” space where researchers with companies can go to develop and test their drug therapies or whatever other medical-focused technologies require the use of liquid solutions.
Researchers and executives with the member companies generally get assigned workbenches or desks within the lab setting.
Other health care-focused incubators and accelerators have also opened in recent years, but they don’t feature shared wet lab facilities. These are geared more toward health tech companies that focus on digital health initiatives or the development of bio-monitoring devices. Among these are Scale LA in Palms and the Cedars-Sinai Accelerator in West Hollywood.
As for life science company incubators with wet lab space, Enany said the ones currently operating are sufficient to meet the demand from startup companies. The concern is what happens with bioscience companies after the incubator stage.
“The big problem is that we have a shortage of wet lab space for companies to land once they graduate from these incubators,” Enany said.
Some incubators have shifted to address this issue, including CTTI at Cal Poly Pomona, which provides longer-term leases to individual companies with exclusive use of its own lab space.
The following is a guide to some of the most prominent bioscience incubators in the area.
Magnify At California Nanosystems Institute
TOP EXECUTIVE: Nikki Lin, director of entrepreneurship and commercialization
FUNDING TO DATE: Funded entirely through operating budget of California Nanosystems Institute, which for 2020-2021 is $20 million
When the University of California established a series of bioscience research institutes in the mid-2000s in an attempt to propel California to the forefront of biotech research, UCLA was awarded the California Nanosystems Institute, or CNSI. Right from its opening in 2007, CNSI featured an incubator to help startups conduct research and development and take their therapeutics and other technologies to commercialization. In 2018, the incubator rebranded itself as Magnify.
It has always included a mix of life science companies and startups focused on developing materials or energy-saving technologies.
“We started off a bit heavier on (the) environmental science and energy side,” said Nikki Lin, director of entrepreneurship and commercialization at CNSI. “Then the focus shifted a bit to life sciences, to the point where we are now at about 70% life science companies.”
To accommodate this shift, Lin said, Magnify has made some space modifications to provide the wet labs that life science companies require.
Among the more prominent life science companies at Magnify are Appia Bio, which is focused on developing allogeneic cell therapies to treat a broad array of cancers, and Octant Inc., which is developing a platform to measure the impact of drugs across cellular pathways.
Pasadena Bio Collaborative
TOP EXECUTIVE: Bud Bishop, president
FUNDING TO DATE: $650,000
The oldest of the current crop of bioscience incubators with lab space in L.A. County, the Pasadena Bioscience Collaborative got its start through a couple of state legislative allocations at the turn of the century aimed at fostering the development of bioscience companies. The incubator opened its doors in 2004 as a modest 500-square-foot facility housing a handful of startups.
The Pasadena Bioscience Collaborative has since grown to more than 12,000 square feet and hosts 28 companies, making it one of the larger incubators in the county.
Bud Bishop, the incubator’s president, said that of the 81 companies that have entered the incubator, 28 are current tenants and 25 left “to get bigger,” which he termed as successful exits.
One of the more prominent exits was gene therapy company Calimmune Inc., which was acquired for $400 million in 2017 by CSL Behring, a biotherapeutics company whose parent is pharma giant CSL Ltd. of Melbourne, Australia. Calimmune remained in Pasadena and relocated to the nearby Alexandria Innovation Center.
Among the companies now at the Pasadena Bioscience Collective incubator are medical test development company BiologyWorks Inc. of Larchmont Village and genetic sequencing company SeqOnce Biosciences Inc.
Biolabs LA At The Lundquist Institute
LOCATION: Harbor UCLA Medical Center campus
TOP EXECUTIVE: Gary Olsem, site director
FUNDING TO DATE: $7.8 million
BioLabs LA is a 2-year-old incubator run by Cambridge, Mass.-based BioLabs, which operates incubator labs in seven other metropolitan areas across the country. It’s housed in 18,000 square feet of space on the third floor of the 80,000-square-foot Lundquist Institute, formerly the Los Angeles Biomedical Research Institute.
The institute is located on the campus of L.A. County-run Harbor-UCLA Medical Center and is a major lynchpin of the county’s plan to develop biomedical research facilities next to each of its five public hospitals.
The county put $4 million toward construction and operation of the incubator and the purchase of the medical equipment; another $3 million was part of a $70 million donation from Richard and Melanie Lundquist for the LA Biomedical Research Institute, which was renamed in their honor. The remaining $800,000 came from the Commerce Department’s Economic Development Administration.
The incubator houses 25 companies through membership agreements. Among the more prominent companies: immunotherapy company Athos Therapeutics Inc. and Basepaws Inc., which develops and markets home genetic tests for cats.
About five more companies are expected to join within the next 90 days, according to BioLabs LA site director Gary Olsem. At that point, the incubator will be at full capacity.
LOCATION: Cal State Los Angeles
TOP EXECUTIVE: Howard Xu, director of incubator development and programming for Cal State Los Angeles
FUNDING TO DATE: $28 million
L.A.’s newest bioscience incubator, LA BioSpace on the Cal State Los Angeles campus, just opened its doors in May, welcoming its first tenants: genetic therapy company Capsida Biotherapeutics. and Nuanced Health Inc., which is focused on bringing more diversity to clinical trials for drug therapies it develops.
Bioinformatics company Sequence Analytics is set to join in August as the third tenant.
LA BioSpace has been nearly a decade in the works, intended as an anchor for a biotech corridor in East Los Angeles. The goal was to place the incubator in a new life sciences building on the Cal State L.A. campus.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and the Department of Commerce each provided $3 million in initial funds. Then in 2016 came a $10 million gift from the family of the late Rongxiang Xu, a scientist, surgeon, inventor and entrepreneur who developed new therapies to treat burns and other tissue damage. The new bioscience research building is named in his honor.
Howard Xu, Cal State L.A.’s director of incubator development and programming and a microbiology professor (no relation to Rongxiang Xu), is hoping the incubator’s fresh opening will set it apart. “We are a new stand-alone facility, with 20,000 square feet of flexible space and brand-new equipment that has been delivered in the past year,” Xu said.
TOP EXECUTIVES: Llewellyn Cox, founder, and Marie Rippen, chief operating officer
FUNDING TO DATE: $70,000
Lab Launch is the only one of the five bioscience incubator/labs in L.A. County that is almost completely privately financed and completely privately operated.
Based in Monrovia, Lab Launch is the brainchild of Llewellyn Cox, who had helped develop the Beckman Research Institute at the City of Hope.
In 2014, Cox was advising local bioscience companies when he saw two of the companies he had advised decided within weeks of each other to leave Los Angeles for the Bay Area. Cox realized this region was lacking in incubator/lab facilities to help those and similar companies, so he put down $50,000 of his own money to open an 11,000-square-foot bioscience incubator lab in late 2014.
Other than an initial $20,000 infusion from the city of Monrovia, the lab has been entirely self-funded ever since, taking in revenue from tenant company membership payments. Lab Launch started as a nonprofit but last year converted to for-profit status.
Among the 10 member companies at Lab Launch are AcuraStem, which is developing drug therapies for ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), and StatLab, which supplies “normal” tissue to labs to function as a control tissue set to compare with biopsy samples.