A career as a doctor was once on the cards for Glennis Mehra. A native New Yorker, she grew up in Queens Village and was on the pre-med track until her time at a liberal arts college made her reassess. Her compromise with her family was to go to graduate school instead, where she gravitated towards neuroscience, and the rest is history.
Today, she is director of BioLabs @NYULangone, a 50,000-square-foot biotech co-working facility at 180 Varick Street. The site is an incubator for life sciences startups, giving them the vital resources needed to accelerate their research and grow.
The need for life sciences research and development is now more transparent than ever, as the COVID-19 pandemic spills into its 20th month. “Fundamentally, what COVID has done is changed the public discourse around the impact of biotech. I think we’re seeing it, feeling it, and experiencing its impact in our daily lives,” Mehra said.
Commercial Observer spoke with Mehra about the importance and demand for life sciences companies, hosting new startups, the incubator’s developer partnerships, and more.
Commercial Observer: BioLabs is referred to as a co-working space for life sciences startups. Is that accurate?
Dr. Glennis Mehra: It is. Our platform is designed for nascent companies who have received their initial seed round, so there is actually a capital requirement to become part of the community. Generally, people have to have a minimum of $250,000 in funding before they can even start the process of applying, and there’s an application selection committee. Fundamentally, what we try to do is provide the resources that a biotech startup company would ordinarily not have. Most companies start with just one or two founders, and they utilize the equipment, the community, and the know-how of the team to accelerate their research and development. It’s a very capital-intensive endeavor to start a biotech company and by providing these resources in a shared space model, it allows more people to enter into the space, more entrepreneurs to take risks, and also allows them to accelerate quite rapidly.
Scientists assess applications from potential BioLabs tenants in terms of the feasibility of what they’re researching and developing. Can you take us through the tenant application process?
The work that’s done on our site is scientifically sound, and the level of scientific rigor that is used to evaluate the companies is pretty amazing. And so, while we’re not necessarily looking at applicants from an investment perspective, or an investor perspective — as to whether or not the company will be commercially successful — we want to make sure foundationally the science will work.
The first assessment is through the application process. We look at the capital requirements that we have, and then we look at the science feasibility. I’m the first one to review that, and the first gatekeeper. Once I believe that there’s some scientific soundness to the project, I advance the applicant to the selection committee. Our selection committee comprises NYU faculty, the NYU Real Estate Group, and also the NYCEDC Life Sciences and Healthcare group — so, Sue Rosenthal [ senior vice president of Life Sciences & Healthcare at NYCEDC]. We also have representatives from a strategic group, so we have very different perspectives, and very different interests and priorities being represented. It’s a good cohort of stakeholders providing inputs and assessments.
How did the partnerships with NYU Langone and NYCEDC come about?
It was primarily generated with the creation of the site, which was funded by EDC and also NYU. I unfortunately wasn’t part of the genesis or origin story, but when it was created the intention was to have BioLabs and similar incubators in the city create a pipeline for a more robust life sciences ecosystem here. The idea was that these companies would begin, create jobs, stay in the city, and either be acquired or create their own multi-billion-dollar endeavor.
Does it feel like people finally appreciate the importance of the work that’s being done in life sciences facilities?
It does, and I think success breeds success. We have companies that have done really well, and they’ve grown tremendously in the two to three years they’ve been on the site. I think Immunai is a great example of this. They started with three founders, and now they’re 60 people. That’s a pretty rapid ramp. I think it’s a testament to them, the zest and zeal of their endeavor, and also to the fact that they had the space and they had the resources to execute.
What differentiates BioLabs from other incubators?
One thing I think is a unique opportunity compared to other incubators is that we don’t necessarily look at the chances of financial success. What we look at is the creation of opportunity. We’re looking at whether or not this company will be able to create what they want to create in the world, whether or not they will create jobs. The financial aspect of it is just a minimal requirement to make sure that they can support themselves. We do not take equity in our companies. The focus is not the financial return, but rather the impact.
Is there such a thing as a typical endeavor underway at BioLabs?
There’s a very wide spectrum. We have about 50 percent of our companies in the therapeutic space, doing traditional small molecule development, and the other 50 percent is divided between companies that are doing A.I. algorithm development, predictive modeling, and also consumer product companies in the nutraceutical space. Plus, we’ve got a few companies working on bio-synthetics for utilizing precision fermentation, and that includes biosynthetic palm oil, breast milk, and others.
How long do tenants typically occupy space?
It varies. At BioLab’s genesis, the intention was for the period to be two years, where they would utilize the space and the site to get to their next milestone they needed for series A or their next round of funding. Then the pandemic happened. So we don’t really have a typical idea anymore of how long it takes. Most companies have been with us for two years and we’ll probably keep it at two years-plus, at least until this new normal gets situated.
Generally speaking, how do you view New York as a life sciences hub?
I think New York is a great opportunity — just the talent and the inventiveness of the New York population and the people who gravitate here. I’m a New Yorker, so I tend to be very biased, but I think there is a tendency for people to come here who are very adventurous, and who are willing to take risks. That’s pretty unique, and I think that’s what we need.
Do you have any tenants coming into New York from other locations?
We do. We have a group that came from the Cambridge area in Boston, we have a group from Connecticut, and another company from California. They’re choosing New York primarily for talent, and also for their own personal reasons.
What are you seeing in terms of investor interest in the life sciences startup space?
I think it’s always been there, and there are investors who know the space and there’s a lot of liquidity available right now. They’re looking for opportunities, and good companies to partner with. I don’t see more investors getting into biotech, but I see more activity with the people who’ve already been there.
Do you see this interest continuing at the same pace once COVID is long behind us?
I think it’s going to be accelerated. Fundamentally, what COVID has done is changed the public discourse around the impact of biotech. I think we’re seeing it, feeling it and experiencing that impact in our daily lives — not just on an individual level, but a broader societal level. The fact that we’re now able to interact with loved ones, and socialize and go to restaurants, is all enabled because of biotech and biotech research. You have companies like Moderna that started from just small ideas that were then incubated — no pun intended — for years, and suddenly there is actually a need that they can fill. That makes it real.
At BioLabs, how do you manage to address the specific, individual needs of new tenants utilizing the site?
Generally, we have everything a company would need for a standard biotech endeavor or development. So we have everything needed for a basic molecular biology workflow, a biochemistry workflow and also cell biology workflow. Most companies who are in biotech need either all of those or one aspect of those workflows and so we provide the resources needed for them to execute. Most people come in with additional requirements and that’s where the relationship with NYU becomes very important, because they have core facilities, they have mass spectrometry, and more higher-end, capital-intensive equipment that we don’t really have on our site. And so by just being part of the community, someone can leverage a great extensive set of resources even beyond what we have on site.
I understand that you’re currently looking to partner with other life science developers?
Yes, and so that’s primarily driven by our headquarters. We have a business development team that’s leading the effort on that. One of the challenges that we have is that as we graduate companies out, we’re seeing some of the challenges that they’re experiencing — with their build-outs and having to put quite a bit of their series A funding towards space. They have to find space that’s considerably bigger than what they need currently, and so there’s very much a need for what we call graduation space — this intermediate space, where someone who has maybe 10 team members can scale to 15 or 20 before having to find a larger footprint.
Were most of your BioLab tenants onsite throughout the pandemic?
When the pandemic started, I think quite a few people stayed at home because no one knew what the nature of the virus was or what the particular guidance was going to be. But as the summer progressed, people started returning. Most of the people who were doing lab work returned. And, either they worked through shifts with their teams to keep social distancing guidelines in place, or they actually had a situation where people were coming in late at night, just to make it work. What I think is tremendous about this community is that they can’t stop. These companies have to make their milestones, and they have to execute to keep their chances of additional funding alive. And so, there’s that absolute need.
How did you first become interested in the life sciences space?
My family were immigrants, and so I had to be a doctor or lawyer [laughs]. I was tracked very early on in the New York City public school system and gifted programs, and very much on the pre-med track. My father, in his infinite wisdom, decided that I needed to go to liberal arts college before I went to med school. And that’s when things unraveled. My parents’ neatly laid plans fell apart, because I just absolutely fell in love with art. I decided that clinical medicine wasn’t for me and went to graduate school as a compromise, where I gravitated towards neuroscience for a variety of reasons — the aesthetics of it, and the idea that it was at the foundation of who we were. The endeavor of neuroscience to understand the brain just was so compelling to me, and there was a vast frontier of ignorance that existed there at the time.
I went to Columbia to get my PhD, focused primarily on developmental neuroscience, and I was keenly interested in the decision making of cells. Ultimately, I did my PhD looking at how cell birth and cell death were regulated in the olfactory system, and that was a very, very tough question. I should not have been doing that as a grad student! I had to employ technology to answer such a big question. So I just became a technology innovation wonk, looking for new tech all the time. I graduated thoroughly exhausted, thinking, “OK, academia is not for me.”
I then got recruited by Columbia Technology Ventures and joined Orin Herkowitz’s group. I thought I knew enough after being mentored by Orin and others that I could start my own company. So, with my husband and others, I started a functional genomics drug discovery platform, in India of all places. I had a modest exit from that and spent two years in India, got to know the culture and then came back to the U.S. because my dad had passed.
I came back somewhat rudderless, not even thinking about a career. I was approached by a boutique consulting firm, who called me into a meeting with a Fortune 500 company to get my assessment on skincare, because I had the background in epithelium regeneration. And what turned into just me sitting, giving my opinion on some of the innovations they were looking at, turned into five years of strategy consulting.
What is your favorite part of your job today?
What gets me out of bed every morning is just the sheer potential of what’s going on at our site. There’s the day-to-day challenges that we all face. But what I tell my team is that if everything that is planned on our site is actually executed, if all of the companies actually meet their milestones, get their product, get their science into the world, we will all be living longer, having better quality of life with our loved ones, and the earth will be better. And so I’m really trying to ensure the success of companies and success of their endeavors. I’m very passionate about it.