The Biomedical Renaissance: Harlem as Innovation Factory

Harlem is associated with a history of innovation in the arts — serving as a home base and creative source for geniuses like W.E.B. Du Bois and Duke Ellington. Harlem Biospace (Hb), a new biotech incubator on 127th Street in West Harlem, is now making waves in the life sciences.

Hb is a diverse community of startups and entrepreneurs who are working on turning revolutionary ideas into new products that solve critical health issues. It is an environment where biotech innovators share ideas, equipment, and each other’s company.

Hb officially opened on November 1st, and is currently housing the initial batch of 17 startups. The site has 24 workstations in total, at a $995 per month list price for each workstation. The monthly fee gives companies access to the lab, desks, equipment, wet lab space, and even legal assistance.

The collective atmosphere at Hb facilitates what some economists call “knowledge spillovers,” or creative convergences (a phenomenon also common in the arts). Places like Harlem and Detroit’s Motown are notorious for being musical hotbeds — spots where people got together to riff and learn from one another, competing for greatness, while still working collaboratively to make something worthwhile. While Hb hosts separate companies pursuing research and product development, the overall environment is one of mutual learning and inspiration. A similar work culture has ignited tech and information ventures in the past years.

“There’s already a lot of great cross-fertilization within the members here. When we have these member meetings they’re sharing ideas… It’s basically the scientific analogy of riffing — people stand up and they say this is what I do, or this is what I’m thinking about now, this is what I’m working on, and before they can even get to the next person, people are jumping in,” said Hb Co-Founder Dr. Sam Sia.

If a startup can successfully complete the rigorous application process, they then enter into a 6-month agreement with Hb, complete with setting milestones for what they expect to achieve with their project. An advisory board comprised of representatives from major financing firms (Bank of America Merrill Lynch) and pharmaceutical companies (Glaxosmith Kline, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson) reviews the application process.

The size (2,000 square-foot floor) and affordability of Hb makes it good for biotech startups in their initial phases. Sia is also Associate Professor of Biomedical Engineering at Columbia University, and was once frustrated by Manhattan’s egregious rent prices. He pitched his incubator idea to the New York City Economic Development Corp. (NYCEDC), and was awarded a $626,000 incremental, milestone-based grant.

The researchers or “members” at Hb are afforded more individual creative reign with their research programs than they would usually have when working for Big Pharma. The Alexandria Center for Life Sciences at 29th and 1st Ave, positioned between Bellevue and NYU Medical Center, caters almost exclusively to major pharmaceutical companies like Eli Lilly, Pfizer, and Roche. Nonetheless, Big Pharma is aware and interested in the talent at Hb and similar biotech startups.

Hb has ties to academia through various outlets, such as Columbia, NYU Langone Medical Center, and the Icahn Medical Institute at Mount Sinai Hospital. That being said, the research environment at Hb is influenced by venture capital, and may be more tailored to risk-taking than in an academic setting.

The initial batch of startups is covering a wide range of biotech issues — from gene-based products, vaccines, bioinformatics, neuromuscular medicine, allergy diagnostics, microfabricated devices, treatment for keloids (a scar tissue disorder that mainly affects people with darker skin), small molecule drugs for oncology and hematology, and microbiome therapies to treat imbalances in the gut. Sia’s own company Junco Labs also works at the space, developing handheld “lab-on-a-chip” devices to perform affordable point-of-care diagnostic tests.

“It is great fun working at Harlem Biospace, especially because we have a group of startups, which allows us to figure out solutions and help each other.” said Dr. Ravi Sachidanandam, Founder of Girhlet, a company developing mitochondrial DNA-based biomarkers for cancer and developmental disorders.

“Different groups have different expertise and instruments, and this environment allows us access to facilities and resources that might not be available in a big institution, all within a small space” Sachidanandam said.

Hb also hosts events and classes — including legal workshops, explaining life science ventures to investors, Q&A with the designers, and “What (biotech) Entrepreneurs can Learn from Tesla.” Nikola Tesla is proof that the road to entrepreneurship is rarely easy, and can be paved with financial hardship. Scientists at Hb face a similar burden as Tesla — finding ways to make the market work for their research.

Many of the startups at Hb have a strong entrepreneurial spirit, and are developing ready-to-use products. For example, Girihlet has developed a novel patented method for purifying and sequencing mitochondrial DNA, and is ready to start processing samples at Hb.

“Our technique enables cheap and accurate sequencing of mitochondrial DNA, thereby enabling large-scale sequencing across cohorts of people, and making it more accessible to the average clinician or researcher,” said Sachidanandam.

The design of Hb’s lab environment is original, creative, and built for group share. Aesthetically, the ambiance is much warmer than in a traditional lab. Hb is filled with desks and chairs made from reclaimed wood and steel, locally crafted table lamps, and Edison bulbs hanging from the ceiling. The space itself seems to invite conversation, collaboration, and creativity. The design of the lab directly influences its social dynamics and productivity. Sia says that recent tech companies who have been able to blend design with innovation inspired Hb’s aesthetic.

The creative initiative at Hb also feeds into its own design and science store. The store has items for different age groups — such as a notebook, clock, Tesla bust, or “Rock Star of Science” T-shirt. Proceeds from product sales goes to HYPOTHEkids, a local non-profit that encourages kids in Harlem to learn about and participate in science.

“We’re bringing programs that I think rival or exceed what’s being done at a lot of private schools… The Teacher’s College (Columbia University) community school has a science lab, and HYPOTHEkids comes in, and brings some really cool people and an exciting curriculum,” said Sia. Sia’s wife Christine is passionate about bringing STEM education to Harlem kids, and is a driving force behind Hb’s work in the community.

The work that Hb is doing exists in relation to a growing scientific and educational climate in Harlem. The Harlem Children Society, started by molecular geneticist and cancer researcher Dr. Sat Bhattacharya is another group engaging Harlem youth in scientific research in biomedicine, engineering, and technology. If presented in the right way, young people flourish through science. Children are natural scientists — inquisitive, imaginative, and persistent. It is very possible that the next Renaissance in Harlem will be a scientific and technological one.

Of course, scientists and doctors have long lived in Harlem. The pursuit of scientific knowledge was integral to the basic thrust of socioeconomic and racial empowerment embodied by the original Harlem Renaissance. In 1919 Jamaican political leader and Harlemite Marcus Garvey rallied for a generation of scientists and engineers to harness “the science of capitalism” for the benefit of the community.

There has long been an entrepreneurial essence to Harlem’s history — something of the revolutionary spirit in its cultural ancestors and trailblazers, those men and women who through action gave their life and knowledge to the people around them.

Presently, startups are creating change by finding new ways to solve old and new problems — expanding the sense of community in a digital and global sense.

NYC has the world’s largest concentration of academic institutions, the highest hospital bed density in the United States, and is the global epicenter of venture capitalism — making the conditions right for a biotech incubator like Hb to thrive. Hb is a working example of how to get great minds together, working collectively and for independent gain, to stimulate the market and drive forward technological and scientific innovation for the benefit of society.

Be Sociable, Share!