Clusters and Collaboration Spur the Future of Life Sciences: Forum

And life sciences might just rescue downtown business cores, according to panelists at the Commercial Observer event


When it comes to life sciences, the Boston, San Francisco and San Diego areas have it all figured out. But their successes aren’t happenstance; they’re opportunistic.

Opportunities for life sciences growth rest on the strength of city clusters: networks of talent, lab potential, academic institutions and financial resources. The importance of these factors resounded throughout Commercial Observer’s latest national life sciences forum, “The Ultimate Catalyst: The Rapid Proliferation of Life Sciences Cities.” Held virtually on June 21, the event opened with Matt Gardner, Americas life sciences leader, advisory, at real estate firm CBRE.

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The first panel, titled “Overcoming Urban Challenges — Life Sciences Spurring Growth Across Market Sectors,” outlined what cities would need to do to establish a life sciences presence. Panelists included Lauren Gilchrist, managing director at life sciences developer Longfellow Real Estate Partners; Anthony Maher, partner and president of Philadelphia-based developer University Place Associates; Brooks Slocum, principal at architecture firm SGA; Matthew Weir, executive vice president at developer Taconic Partners; and Nancy J. Kelley, president and CEO of life sciences consultancy Nancy J. Kelley + Associates and co-founder of NYC Builds Bio+. Philip Parisi, an associate principal at MG Engineering, moderated the discussion.

The panelists cited life sciences as one of today’s fastest-growing industries — and one that’s only just getting started. Recent growth in the sector not only bodes well for the future of labs, but also has the wherewithal to attract new office, residential and cultural spaces.

“You need to create that live, work, play, learn environment that’s going to be so important for the attraction of the workforce,” Kelley said.

Certainly a diverse economy is crucial for a city’s life sciences growth and longevity. Life science developers must pull out all the stops to attract in-person talent, whether they’re building labs in proximity to gyms and restaurants or offering state-of-the-art amenities, the panelists said. In contending with the interests of the workforce, the life sciences industry has the potential to circumvent the decline of offices amid the boom in work from home

“You can’t work from home when you’re a lab researcher,” Weir said.

Finding and maintaining the right talent is therefore key, but rather than look outward at professionals coming into a city, Gilchrist recommends starting from within. Hiring graduates from a city’s universities is an easy way of utilizing and accessing up-and-coming talent, and can help establish a talent pipeline that connects to the broader scientific community.

Yet simply attracting talent isn’t enough to sustain life sciences development. When it comes to its metro-wide potential, clustering has become the go-to phenomenon. 

“The life sciences industry requires many, many different aspects of the ecosystem to be developed to flourish,” said Gilchrist. “We can’t put a life sciences ecosystem … in the midst of nowhere, with no sort of connectivity to the existing labor market, to the existing talent pool that is graduating out of the universities, and without some of that infrastructure that helps it to survive and thrive.”

Gilchrist mentioned a few foundational factors crucial for establishing a life sciences cluster. She noted that regions successful in cultivating networks, like Boston and San Francisco, have strong academic anchors with technological transfer or commercialization programs. Such programs help scientists bring their research to market and apply their discoveries at large.

For new life sciences markets, however, a funding ecosystem is essential for spurring growth and research momentum. NIH funding and venture capital funding can expand the scope of clinical trials and advance a project well beyond its early stages. 

Regardless of finances, however, all roads lead back to talent.

“We always say the funding is certainly the fuel of the industry, but the talent is the governor,” said Thomas Cleaver, an executive vice president at CBRE.

Cleaver moderated the day’s second panel, “The Micro Areas of Life Sciences Proliferation: Status Check On Up & Coming Markets.” The panel featured Peter Dowley, a senior vice president of investments at real estate investment trust Kilroy Realty; Christie Chen, director of investments at investor and developer Oxford Properties; Nadir Settles, managing director at investment manager Nuveen; Marc Carola, a senior leader of science and technology at engineering consulting firm AKF Group; and Chris Stoddard, an associate principal at architecture practice Ennead. 

The panel overviewed geographic strategies for generating success in life sciences. When it comes to developing portfolios, panelists said, real estate companies must decide where to best focus their resources. 

Opportunities can be summed up by three tiers, said Chen. She pointed to well-established clusters, like the beloved Boston, San Francisco and San Diego, which have strong and fierce competition, as well as pre-existing resources. Trailing behind these established cities are maturing clusters — Seattle, Philadelphia, Raleigh-Durham — with proven growth. Finally, developers may choose to focus on up-and-coming markets, like Denver or Housten, that have the characteristics of successful clusters but are still in the monitoring stage. 

“Each life science market has its own personality,” said Carola. He pointed to design considerations across clusters. “Whether it’s Boston, New York [or] San Diego, there is regional difference, differences in sciences being pursued and market maturity.”

Yet, regardless of location, Carola cited sustainability and wellness as at the forefront of today’s design. Decarbonization measures, as well as efforts to reduce energy across buildings, begin at the design stage, and will help buildings pivot toward net zero. Yet, while notable goals, these design considerations present a unique challenge due to the inherently large size and scope of life sciences spaces.  

To combat design challenges, collaboration and open dialogue are essential, which the speakers in the day’s final event reiterated. In “The Evolution of the Life Sciences Sector & The Future of Design,” Robert Ayello, senior associate at engineering company Jaros, Baum & Bolles, moderated a conversation between David Stockel, a senior vice president at CBRE, and Matt Malone, senior vice president for life sciences at developer Taconic Partners.

The three panelists talked about the importance of collaboration between owners, design professionals and leasing agents. Alignment on all sides of a building’s development provides insight into the needs of the current market, as well as optimal strategies for the future, said Ayello. 

Achieving this collaboration is much simpler than it seems.

“I don’t think it’s magic,” said Malone, before emphasizing the power of communication. Creating a dialogue across stages of a building’s development will not only improve team dynamics but also enable the best possible output. 

Stockel agreed, noting that communication can resolve potential issues in a building before they arise. Motivations and strategies may vary from design to development, so establishing clear, united goals will get everyone on the same page from the get-go. Open dialogue is one small but impactful way of achieving team harmony, panelists said.

To open avenues for communication, visualization is a particularly useful tool. A visual component can show all involved parties how a building will ultimately look — and what it will be capable of doing. 

“Test fits are critical,” Stockel said.

Without a prebuilt environment, test fits can ease client concerns and allow for changes to be made before anything has been built. Offering a visual therefore opens the door for communication and covers the bases of owners; upon receiving tenant feedback, owners can make necessary changes before it’s too late. 

In creating this back-and-forth, developers, designers, tenants and the like allow for flexibility. Flexibility boomed throughout the panel as a theme for success in the ever-evolving life sciences sphere. 

Anna Staropoli can be reached at