From Vision to Vanguard: Charting the Rise of NYC into a Global Life Sciences Hub

In Blog by Nancy J KelleyLeave a Comment

In the closing months of 2023, our journey with Builds Bio+ took a transformative turn. We embarked on an ambitious project, partnering with London’s life sciences community to organize an event unlike any other: a three-day immersion into New York City’s flourishing life sciences sector. This initiative, the New York / London Life Sciences Study Tour, was more than just an event; it was a bridge connecting two continents, fostering a dialogue among the pivotal players from various sectors within the life sciences, including real estate, design, engineering, economic development, and investment.

We facilitated discussions with architects, executives, and professionals from both the public and private sectors. Through these conversations, we uncovered the extensive planning and investment that catapulted New York into a competitive life science hub. Government support, research collaborations, startup incubation and philanthropy were highlighted as key factors in this growth.

The exclusive launch event, held at Savills in London, was a sold-out event that drew the attention of industry leaders and enthusiasts alike.
Our explorations culminated in the release of a research report, titled “Evolution of the New York Life Sciences Market.” This report unveils the transformative growth of NYC’s life sciences market over the past 25 years, highlighting the development of key infrastructure and initiatives that have marked the city’s emergence as a global leader in research and innovation, and offers valuable insights and strategies for cities aiming to become global life science hubs, such as London.

NYC Life Science Timeline

NYC Life science timeline - NJKA

The First Commercialization Engines

NYC hosts the largest concentration of leading academic medical centers and research institutions in the world. Yet despite this rich environment for innovation, the city initially struggled with the commercialization of university-derived technologies. This narrative began to shift in the early 2000’s when the pharmaceutical industry began to decentralize and strategically relocated closer to innovation hubs like Harvard and MIT. These Cambridge institutions had been prolific in generating startups since the 1980’s, a trend that was slower to take off in NYC. It was the launch of incubators in New York in the late 1990’s such as Columbia University’s Audubon Business and Technology Center and SUNY Downstate’s incubator in Brooklyn that marked a significant shift in the city’s approach to commercializing life science innovations.

We envisioned this initiative to become a ‘Science Park in the City,’ a life sciences campus that is sensitive to the adjacent neighborhood and creates a vibrant civic space that attracts people to the site.

The city’s flagship project, however, was development of the East River Science Park (now the Alexandria Center for Life Sciences), which is a 3.5-acre parcel of land.

When I first visited as a lead executive in its development, the land contained an abandoned laundry facility laden with asbestos, a surface parking lot, and, most poignantly, tents sheltering the unidentified remains of 9/11 victims.

We envisioned this initiative to become a ‘Science Park in the City,’ a life sciences campus that is sensitive to the adjacent neighborhood and creates a vibrant civic space that attracts people to the site. And we succeeded. Pfizer, Roche, and NYU established their presence here, alongside numerous startups, making it the city’s inaugural commercial hub for life sciences.

The New York Genome Center involved the first adaptive reuse of of an office building into a commercial life science facility in Manhattan.
Another groundbreaking project soon followed in 2010: the New York Genome Center (NYGC), of which I was Founding Executive Director. NYGC was founded in collaboration with 11 of the city’s leading academic institutions after the realization that NYC institutions were lagging far behind other academic clusters institutions such as Boston and Broad Institute. For example, in 2010 there were only 29 old DNA sequencing machines in all of Metro NYC in comparison to The Broad Institute, which had 300 brand new Illumina sequencers. We launched the NYGC in 2011 and opened a high throughput sequencing facility in 2013.

The momentum continued with the opening of BioBAT and Harlem BioSpace, which further enriched the life sciences ecosystem.

Investment Across Sectors

By 2016, life sciences had become the fastest-growing segment of NYC’s economy, a trajectory further accelerated by Mayor de Blasio’s $500 million investment in the sector. This commitment, along with the Mayor’s 10-point plan and Governor Cuomo’s subsequent $620 million life sciences initiative, significantly propelled the growth of life sciences in NYC.

Shortly after the state’s initiative, a $17 million investment was announced for JLABS@NYC, a Johnson & Johnson-operated incubator within the NYGC Building. This facility, designed from NYGC’s inception to nurture startups, today hosts 30 companies. $25 million was also invested in Indie Bio, an SOSV venture that transitioned from San Francisco to New York, pledging to support 20 companies annually with a $2 million investment in each.

Co-founders of Builds Bio - Nancy Kelley

In 2018, we co-founded Builds Bio+ to bring the life sciences and real estate communities together to support the expansion of privately-held laboratory space the city desperately needed in order to retain the young companies spinning out of New York’s research institutions. The evolution of NYC’s life sciences ecosystem has also been marked by strategic partnerships that foster an environment conducive to innovation and growth.

The launch of “CURE” by Deerfield Management and Innolabs in collaboration with King Street Properties are just a few examples of the transformative facilities that have emerged through public-private partnerships with the NYC. Notably, the Pandemic Response Lab was established within Innolabs during the COVID-19 crisis, underscoring the facility’s importance in addressing public health emergencies.

The New York State’s investment didn’t stop there; $10 million was allocated to the Tastee building in the Manhattanville Factory District, near the new Columbia University Manhattanville campus. This funding aimed to establish a new node of innovation, further enriching the city’s life sciences landscape.

Equally important to the growth of NYC life sciences has been generous contributions from philanthropic organizations. Foundations such as Bloomberg Philanthropies, Simons Foundation, Carson Family Charitable Trust, and Alfred P. Sloan Foundation have been instrumental. Their substantial investments, totaling over $1 billion, have supported key institutions and initiatives, including the NYGC, the Cornell Tech campus on Roosevelt Island, and the new Climate Change Initiatives on Governors Island, amongst others.

The infusion of venture capital into the life sciences sector has also seen a remarkable uptick. Initially lagging behind in venture investments, New York saw a significant increase starting in 2018, attributed to the synergistic impact of public, philanthropic, and private sector investments. This trend has continued, with venture capital investments growing year over year, signaling robust confidence in the sector’s potential.

A Network of Subclusters

New York’s “Bio Arc,” a concept developed by my firm and Ennead architects, highlights the interconnected subclusters of life science innovation across New York and into New Jersey, illustrating how these hubs are seamlessly connected by the city’s robust transportation network.
Today, NYC’s life sciences sector isn’t confined to a single hub but is dispersed across a network of subclusters throughout the city, encompassing major boroughs like Manhattan, Queens, Long Island City, Brooklyn, and the Bronx. This decentralized growth pattern, which allows for a diverse and vibrant ecosystem, mirrors the evolution in Boston, where the growth of life sciences ecosystems around the Longwood Medical Center and MIT’s Tech Square spurred development into Cambridge and beyond.

Today, the impact of these strategic investments is unmistakable with the city’s total investment now reaching $1.1 billion, fostering the development of 12 active incubators and 3.5 million square feet of space dedicated to life sciences—a stark contrast to the landscape in 2018. The ambitious goal set for 2030 envisions a thriving ecosystem of 1,000 R&D companies, creating 40,000 jobs and expanding the life science real estate footprint to 10 million square feet, projected to generate an economic impact of $82 billion.

Lessons Learned

Reflecting on the lessons learned during this period, the launch, growth and development of young life science companies from the universities proved crucial to the growth of the broader life science industry.  Addressing their needs with incubators such as BioLabs @ NYU, JLAB@NYC and IndieBio was critical.  The scarcity of step out laboratory space in 2018 also significantly impeded the growth of life science companies in NYC. Emerging from academic institutions and incubators, young startup companies often found themselves compelled to leave the city due to the lack of suitable facilities. Addressing this challenge became paramount, leading to the development of both non-profit and for-profit laboratory spaces, such as those at the NYGC, Innolabs and the Manhattanville Factory District. The creation of these spaces has been instrumental in fostering the city’s burgeoning life sciences ecosystem.

Today, the critical role of startup incubators cannot be overstated.
With 10 to 12 incubators supporting the emergence of 25 to 30 companies annually, these entities have become the engines of commercialization, propelling the sector’s growth. New York’s status as a hotbed of innovation now extends beyond traditional life sciences to include robotics, medical devices, digital health, and the integration of big data and artificial intelligence. The city’s infrastructure, including data centers, is increasingly oriented towards supporting these converging technologies, alongside emerging climate solutions.

Cultured Colonies and other life science companies NYC

While national entities such as Alexandria Real Estate Equities and King Street Properties have played significant roles in this evolution, the contributions of local leaders have been indispensable. Taconic Partners leveraged its expertise in tech-oriented buildings to successfully transition into the life science real estate market with the Hudson Research Center and 125 West End Avenue. Janus Properties has also transformed spaces like the historic Mink and Malt buildings and the new Taystee building in the Manhattanville Factory District, exemplifying successful adaptive reuse.

Also integral to New York’s life sciences narrative is the emphasis on education and job training, ensuring the economic benefits of this booming sector are widely distributed across communities. The newly announced SPARC Kips Bay project, with its focus on educational advancement and vocational training, is poised to further enhance these opportunities, embodying the city’s commitment to creating a more inclusive and prosperous future for all its residents.

Sparc Kips Bay labs

The story of NYC’s emergence as a global life sciences hub is not just a testament to strategic investments and innovative collaborations; it’s a shared vision for a healthier, more sustainable world.

The Study Tour Continues

We are excited to continue the Life Sciences Study Tour in London this April, where we will delve into the heart of London/UK’s life science ecosystem, take part in site tours of leading life science facilities across London, Cambridge, and Oxford, engage with key industry figures, and experience the city’s rich cultural heritage. We welcome you to join us and take part in the conversation!

The New York / London Life Sciences Study Tour will continue in London, UK on April 22-25, 2024. For more information, please visit:

Leave a Comment