LabCentral, a biotech incubator that has fostered hundreds of startups at its shared lab spaces in Cambridge, is tripling its footprint with a new 100,000-square-foot lab, office, and manufacturing facility. The site, which is opening at a time when lab leases are commanding premium prices, has room for 13 startups focused on making cutting-edge medicines, including cell and gene therapies.
The nonprofit’s third and largest space, dubbed LabCentral 238, officially opened last week at 238 Main St., a site owned by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that sits mere steps from a Kendall/MIT MBTA Red Line stop.
The location combines the century-old clock tower building at the address with a new 12-story glass building. LabCentral’s space spans the fourth and fifth floors of the combined buildings, and as far as labs go, it is anything but staid. Common spaces are embellished in a rainbow motif, and its halls feature rotating art galleries..
LabCentral charges about $100,000 a month per private lab suite, depending on the size. “It’s not cheap to be here, and we never wanted it to be cheap. We wanted it to be a good value,” said Dr. Johannes Fruehauf, cofounder and president of LabCentral. Companies get access to millions of dollars worth of shared equipment and services that they don’t have to set up themselves, he added.
More than 360 startups have rented space from LabCentral since its doors opened in 2013. The organization’s first site, in the historic Polaroid building at 700 Main Street, was designed to help tiny biotech firms quickly conduct their experiments using shared facilities and equipment — a cheaper and faster option than leasing and outfitting a private lab.
A second site, at 610 Main St., opened in 2017 as a stepping stone for companies that were growing but not quite ready for a place of their own. The newest facility, LabCentral 238, provides bigger space for companies that have already begun designing drugs — often at a previous LabCentral location — and now need to figure out how to actually make them.
The labs are outfitted with equipment geared toward firms developing cell and gene therapies, as well as complex drugs grown through fermentation. “They can try out devices from different manufacturers and see which one works best with their own product,” Fruehauf said.
Nearly 200 people from 11 biotech startups have already moved into LabCentral 238, each with its own private research suite, plus access to shared labs. Many of the tenants have already raised multimillion dollar financing rounds or struck partnerships with big pharma firms.
One resident startup, Satellite Bio, raised $110 million earlier this year to develop a new kind of therapy that could heal damaged organs when implanted in a patient. The implant, based on work from MIT and Boston University researchers, is made from healthy cells enmeshed in a biodegradable gel.
“We have to assemble these materials together, so our manufacturing process is really important,” said chief technology officer Tom Lowery. “The luxury of LabCentral is we can focus on that and not have to think about anything else.”
Satellite, like many other startups at the site, has big ambitions to develop a new class of medicines that can be applied to many diseases. Tevard Biosciences, for instance, is pioneering a new kind of RNA therapy that can overwrite genetic mutations and restore missing proteins in diseases such as epilepsy. Another startup, Vedere Bio, is designing gene therapies that may help people with inherited blindness regain their sight, regardless of the genetic cause.
For these firms, figuring out how to manufacture these therapies in commercial quantities can be just as challenging as designing the therapies. “It’s important for companies to have closer ties to that work, and to start to prove that scale-up is possible,” said LabCentral 238 site head Lyndsey Rissin.
The companies aren’t supposed to stay at the facility forever. “It’s a little bit like teenagers going to college. You should grow out of the cozy home, right?” Fruehauf said. Most firms have stayed in LabCentral’s previous locations for about two years. “I expect them to move out even faster here, because these companies are on such a growth trajectory.”
The new site is opening during a red hot market for lab space. Real estate developers are planning new research buildings and converting empty offices into labs at a breakneck pace, and Fruehauf anticipates a “glut” of lab space “will bring the rental prices down, or at least put a cap on the meteoric growth” in the coming years.
“For a biotech entrepreneur, it’s great,” he said. But it also means that LabCentral may face more competition for signing leases. LabCentral 238 was projected to cost between $30 million and $40 million, but expenses ballooned to $63 million at one point, Fruehauf said. The final bill was less, but he wouldn’t disclose the exact amount.
Astellas Pharma, a Japanese drugmaker with a regenerative medicine subsidiary in Westborough, , said it would commit $12.5 million to the facility as a founding sponsor. That title comes with perks, including an on-site office giving the firm a front row seat to the progress of startups coming through the site. Astellas is part of the selection committee that decides which startups can move into LabCentral 238.
Mike Luther, Global Head of Search and Evaluation, Business Development at Astellas Pharma, said in an email that more than half of the firm’s drug pipeline comes from outside the company, so it is “critically important for us to access innovation.”
The Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, a quasi-public agency focused on life science job creation in the Commonwealth, is also a founding sponsor. Additional sponsors include Waltham-based Thermo Fisher Scientific and Milford-based Waters Corporation, which are lab supply and equipment companies.
LabCentral shares the building with Bayer’s new research center, the gene editing company Beam Therapeutics, and the cell therapy company Bluerock Therapeutics.