The gene editing company Crispr Therapeutics has departed Cambridge for a shiny seven-story building of its own on the edge of the Seaport District, making it the latest biotech firm to move from Kendall Square in search of more space and lower rent.
The company’s new research and development headquarters at 105 West First St. is just minutes from the Broadway Red Line station. It will accommodate the majority of the company’s more than 400 employees in Massachusetts, with room to grow the headcount to 1,000. The company’s employees gathered Thursday to celebrate the opening of the 263,500-square-foot building.
Chief executive Dr. Samarth Kulkarni said his employees were previously spread out across three locations in Cambridge, and he is excited to finally have everyone under one roof. “We had the ability to control and occupy the whole building, which is very difficult to do in Cambridge,” he said.
The move comes at a crucial time for the nearly nine-year-old company, which is on the cusp of asking regulators to approve its first therapy for two genetic blood conditions. Crispr is a pioneer in developing therapies based on the experimental CRISPR gene editing technology, which can make precise changes to DNA. The company, which is valued at more than $5.5 billion, also has earlier-stage programs in treatments for cancer, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and neurological conditions.
“As we’re growing and getting more programs into the clinic and ultimately to commercialization, we need more space,” said Kulkarni, who has led the company since 2017.
Crispr’s new building sits near the southwestern edge of Boston’s Seaport, a neighborhood that is a burgeoning new hub for biotech companies looking for an alternative to the increasingly expensive and crowded Kendall Square.
“Traditionally, there was a dogma that if you’re a biotech company you needed to be in Cambridge,” Kulkarni said. But the growing number of biotech firms based there, along with big pharma firms such as AstraZeneca and Bayer opening labs in Cambridge, has made affordable lab space harder to come by.
Only 2.2 percent of the roughly 13 million square feet of lab space in Cambridge was vacant in the second quarter of this year, compared with 13 percent of the nearly 3.8 million square feet of lab space in Boston, according to a market report from the real estate firm Newmark. The average asking price for renting lab space in Boston was about $9 cheaper per square foot as well — $105 in Boston versus $114 in Cambridge.
Several drug companies have announced plans this year for new labs in the Seaport, including Boston-based Vertex Pharmaceuticals, the French firm Servier Pharmaceuticals, and the Indianapolis-based Eli Lilly & Co.
“The Seaport is really emerging as a vibrant area,” Kulkarni said.
A recent report from the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council showed that a slight majority of venture capital money raised by biotech startups in the first half of this year went to firms based outside of Cambridge — a reversal from the year prior. Nearly 30 percent of those funds — more than $1.5 billion — went to startups in Boston.
The number of biotech firms planting roots south of the Charles River is likely to continue. According to Newmark, there’s 4.3 million square feet of lab space under construction in Boston — largely in the Seaport — compared to 2 million square feet under construction in Cambridge.
Kulkarni would not disclose specifics on how much the new building cost, but he said it is more cost-efficient to be in the Seaport. The company spent $241.4 million on research and development expenses in the first half of this year, a 58 percent increase from the first half of 2021, according to the firm’s quarterly financial statements. Some of these expenses were related to the new building.
The building includes a publicly accessible ground floor with a café, meeting space, and a thruway to West Second Street. The building was built by Breakthrough Properties, through a joint venture with Tishman Speyer and Bellco Capital.
The firm’s corporate headquarters will remain in Switzerland, where it was founded. “We continue to do business development deals out of there. It’s where we started and we’ve maintained our roots there,” Kulkarni said. The firm also has employees at a manufacturing facility in Framingham.
Crispr’s most advanced program is a one-time treatment for the genetic blood conditions sickle cell disease and beta-thalassemia. The experimental approach is boosting levels of the crucial blood protein hemoglobin in these patients, and the results from clinical trials look promising so far. Thanks to the genetic fix, people with sickle cell disease are experiencing fewer pain crises and people with beta-thalassemia are requiring fewer blood transfusions to stay healthy.
Crispr plans to submit the therapy, which it is developing with Boston-based Vertex Pharmaceuticals, to European regulators by the end of the year, and potentially to the FDA around the same time or soon after. If approved, it will likely become the first commercial CRISPR therapy.
“If someone had said 10 years ago that this new technology is going to be an approved medicine in 10 years, people would have laughed you out of the room. But today it’s almost a reality,” Kulkarni said. “And it could be a curative medicine for patients.”