Friday, January 15, 2010

Ignite Institute deal a spark for Fairfax County incubator

After winning support for $25 million in state funds during a major budget crisis and using the field of molecular exploration to unite rival politicians behind the same cause, the Ignite Institute has managed one more miracle in Northern Virginia.

It will help create the area’s first known biotech incubator with wet labs.

The medical research institute, a coup for Fairfax County announced late last year, and its temporary landlord, the Center for Innovative Technology in Herndon, will use at least $3 million from state incentive funds to construct, at minimum, 20,000 square feet of lab space in the modern building.

The Ignite Institute, which aims to have 100 scientists by the year’s end and 500 in five years, will use the lab space on the third and possibly fourth floors of a 60,000-square-foot CIT wing. It could move in as early as June.

After the institute departs in a few years for a permanent, 300,000-square-foot home, likely in the Dulles corridor, CIT officials plan to partition the lab space left behind and use it as a new life sciences incubator for lease to young biotechs .

“We would work directly with entrepreneurs,” said the center’s CEO, Peter Jobse.

Lab space has topped wish lists for every Northern Virginia economic development office, university and lost biotech prospect for decades while suburban Maryland accumulated a plethora of lab space. No developer was willing to shell out money for pricey lab build-outs without guaranteed tenants, and no potential tenant was willing to pick Northern Virginia without ready lab space.

“Lots of little tenants would have been in Virginia were there lab space,” said Dan Gonzalez, a member of the Virginia Biotechnology Organization’s board and CEO of Appian Realty Inc., a real estate company representing CIT. “Ten years ago, we identified this as a need. If Ignite is the catalyst for it happening, so be it.”

Fairfax County once had a BioAccelerator in Springfield that amounted to less than 10,000 square feet of office space, closing it in 2007 because of high operating costs.

George Mason University also ran into problems with its plans for bulking up its lab space. After the lack of local labs sent one GMU spinoff, Theranostics Health LLC, packing for Rockville, the university sketched out larger lab quarters in Manassas. However, the main developer pulled out of a planned build-out last year, and state funding remains difficult to find, forcing GMU to cram a second spinoff, Ceres Nanosciences LLLP, into its own science building.

Operating a biotech incubator is not for the fainthearted. Owners must manage some of the world’s most sensitive machinery and hazardous materials, not to mention companies that crave hundreds of millions of dollars for product development for years in return for zero revenue. The investment and upkeep amounts also are high. Construction costs alone approach $300 a square foot.

“There are a lot of issues on the business end and technical facility side that are very unique to biotech companies that would need to be considered prior to running a successful incubator,” said Mike Norris, a vice president in the Vienna office of Scheer Partners Inc., a life sciences real estate company.

Thanks to Virginia’s high population of information technology companies, CIT has gravitated more toward that field. Only six of the center’s 36 funded companies are in the life sciences, and two of those are in Northern Virginia. But with a 3-year-old, roughly $500,000 annual BioLife fund and staff expertise, CIT officials say they are well-equipped to serve the life sciences.

“We don’t have the rich history and strong base of life sciences companies in the Commonwealth that exist in San Diego and Boston,” said Tom Weithman, managing director of CIT Gap Funds. “But that said, I think there’s tremendous potential in the work being done by companies here.”

Vandana Sinha, Staff Reporter
Washington Business Journal

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