Incubator in Waiting

The space is ready for a Biotech facility, but the funding is in limbo

By Amy Castor (for BusinessWest)

Except for some HVAC ducting and a few pieces of stranded equipment on carts, Dr. Paul Friedmann is standing in a big, empty space on the top floor of the Pioneer Valley Life Sciences Institute building in Springfield.

‘Empty’ is the key word here.

The 12,500 square-foot area is the much-anticipated home of the region’s first biotech incubator, which has the potential of luring entrepreneurs and the seeds of new business to the area.

The plans are laid. The space has been chosen. Everything is ready to go, but until the Mass Life Sciences Center frees up the $5.5 million in funds, which the state earmarked for the build-out of the incubator, that space remains empty. It was hoped that the money would come through last year, but so far it has not.

Mass Life Sciences Center is the entity in charge of distributing the $1 billion in funds generated when Gov. Patrick signed the Life Sciences Bill in June 2008. The bill is part of a 10-year strategy to lure more life-sciences business into the state. A $5.5 million chunk of it was to go toward creating an incubator in the Pioneer Valley.

“We’re working with Mass Life Sciences right now,” said Friedmann, who is the executive director of the Pioneer Valley Life Sciences Institute. “It’s an ongoing process. They are trying to support us, but they didn’t get all the funds they asked for, and they have other projects in the state they are trying to help.”

Early-stage companies often don’t have the means to commit to a long-term commercial office lease. They need a place to survive until they can garner enough interest to attract another level of venture funding. If the life-sciences industry is to bring the next wave of economic growth to the state, an incubator could play a vital role in helping new companies get a foothold in the region.

“The state has supported the concept of life sciences as one of its major goals with the idea that it’s going to be a major source of activity and job creation in the state,” said Friedmann. “If we want to do that, we have to have an incubator, because young companies are not going to come here if there is no place to go. And to attract an established company here is very hard to do.”

With a biotech incubator, the real benefit is lab space, Friedmann said. “Businesses have been known to start in garages, but it’s much harder to start a laboratory. You just can’t do it in any place except an incubator.”

The incubator space at Pioneer Valley Life Sciences Institute has room for about a dozen wet labs, so called because water and specialized utilities are piped in for use in biological and chemical experiments. According to Friedmann, ideally, entrepreneurs will rent a space for three to five years until they reach a point where they are ready to implant somewhere else, which is why there’s also talk of building a biotech park in the area.

“If a young company is successful, the idea is they will leave the incubator, and because of the infrastructure and support systems they have been built, they will be more than likely to stay in the area,” explained Friedmann. “And if they stay in the area, they need a place to go.”

The end result of all this is more jobs. According to the National Business Incubation Assoc. Web site, in 2006, incubators in North America assisted more than 27,000 start-up companies that provided full-time employment for more than 100,000 workers and generated annual revenue of more than $17 billion.

Western Mass. has a history of entrepreneurial activity in some sectors, but not biotechnology. It’s away from Boston and major sources of venture funding, but if the region is to attract young biotech ventures at all, it needs a place for them to start.

Hopefully, that place is coming soon.

“We should get at least some of the money this year,” Friedmann said. “We’ve had some discussions with a couple of potential tenants. But until we build it out, nobody is gong to make a commitment to go into the space. We’re still waiting.”