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New York City takes a lead in life sciences

The city’s academic institutions and investors are looking more than ever at establishing life science companies, and they are finding fertile ground in the rapidly growing ecosystem

Barely a week into 2023 and Aethon, a start-up founded by two leading oncology experts at NYU Langone, announced that it had secured financing for its cancer-therapeutics platform[1] – a milestone in its journey towards commercialising its research.

Aethon’s success speaks volumes about the depth of life sciences research in New York City. But it also illustrates a shift in mindset within the city’s institutions over the past decade or more as they show a growing willingness and ability to embrace the commercial potential of their own therapies and discoveries.

“As a university, we’ve moved far beyond just saying, ‘Here’s some interesting science that someone else can take forward’,” says Marc Sedam, Vice President of NYU’s Technology Opportunities and Ventures. “We’re now active participants in commercialisation through creating more start-ups.”

From Brooklyn to Harlem, the shift has resulted in a burgeoning life sciences ecosystem that has caught the eye of companies and investors looking to tap into the next generation of translational research and development in the life sciences. The New York metro area is now home to 5,100 life sciences companies – some 30 per cent more than Boston. It also has nearly 150,000 jobs in life sciences: 14,000 more than San Francisco, the second-largest market for jobs in the sector.[2]

But what is behind this mindset shift? And what is driving the bold new push to unleash commercialisation opportunities among the city’s life sciences academics, founders, investors – and, now, public officials?

Academic medical institutions here are so strong that the translational opportunities are profound.

Amy Schulman, Managing Partner at Polaris Partners – an investment firm backing healthcare and biotech companies – argues that part of the answer is an innovation boom in the biopharmaceutical world that continues to thrive from New York’s unique set of advantages. “Academic medical institutions here are so strong that the translational opportunities are profound,” she says. “And when you couple that with New York’s talent and diversity, it’s impossible to ignore.”

Polaris Partners has been so impressed by New York’s life sciences hub that it opened offices in the city and has backed a range of New York’s life sciences start-ups. “The opportunity to be a part of this thriving ecosystem is just so compelling,” Schulman says.

Sustained public commitment

As Senior Vice President for Applied Innovation and Industry Partnerships at Columbia University, Orin Herskowitz is at the centre of that thriving ecosystem: research at Columbia produced more than 120 licences and options in 2021, more than double the number in 2008. Roughly two-thirds of those are in the life sciences.[3]

But Herskowitz argues that beyond the city’s strength in academia, talent and diversity, the mindset shift among academics and their institutions is in large part thanks to a sustained effort by public officials to create a productive environment, including commitments to invest more than $1bn in the sector.

“They have been willing to put their money where their mouths are, and that’s a very attractive force for commercial types,” he says. “If you're a venture capitalist thinking about where you want to go shopping for your next technology, or if you're a large company, those kinds of signals matter.”

The power of physical space

One key part of the strategy has been to vastly increase the physical space – everything from offices to wet labs – that the sector needs to grow. Nowhere are those efforts more on display than at the city’s Science Park and Research Campus (SPARC) Kips Bay, a five-acre city block in Manhattan that will soon have more than 1.5mn square feet of academic, public health and life sciences space.

The project – a partnership between the City, State and The City University of New York (CUNY) – is expected to generate $25bn in economic impact over the next 30 years (roughly by 2050) and create 10,000 jobs.[4]

“Very rarely can you find a five-acre site in Manhattan to develop,” says Andrew Kimball, President and CEO of New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC), a non-profit with a mission to create jobs that drive growth. “It says a lot about how we’re approaching this next phase of life sciences growth.”

Gravitational pull on jobs

Ellen Jorgensen – a New York-born molecular biologist and co-founder of Aanika Biosciences, which creates microbial tags to enhance the traceability and safety of the food system – has been a first-hand witness to New York’s life sciences transformation.

“Not long ago, there was no infrastructure that would allow two people in the space to come together,” she says. “It’s a sign of the times that we are now part of this movement that is bringing entrepreneurial biotech into the city.”

She also says that it has created a strong gravitational pull for graduates to stay in New York – a force strengthened by the City’s internship programme, which has placed more than 550 interns across 120 host companies, with 47 per cent of placements turning into full-time roles.[5]

“It’s always irked me that there was nowhere for graduates to go, given our wonderful ecosystem of academic institutions,” Jorgensen says. “Now there is.”

The support from the City and the unlocking of more dedicated real estate has created a virtuous circle for life sciences in New York – encouraging academics to take out space for their ventures, which then facilitates new connections, new investments and new opportunities.

Tap into the growing New York City life sciences ecosystem

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