Friday, May 25, 2012

Former Genaera home to become new tech center

by John George

"A building that once housed a now-defunct biotechnology company is getting a new life as a center for early-stage life sciences firms and other technology-related businesses.
ProTecs has invested $2.3 million to buy and renovate the former home of Genaera Corp. (originally founded in 1988 as Magainin Pharmaceuticals) to turn it into the Montgomery County Technology Center.
“The trend is Big Pharma is vacating their research-and-development space,” said Christopher R. DiPaolo, president of ProTecs, which moved its headquarters from Conshohocken to the tech center here last summer. ProTecs, which acquired the property through a lease-to-own deal, was expected to close on its acquisition of the building this week.

DiPaolo said larger pharmaceutical companies are turning to partnerships with smaller biotech firms to replenish their pipeline of new drug candidates.

“The biggest hurdle the startups have is finding a place to do their research,” he said.

Locally, companies can pay as much as $300 a square foot for lab space — which for a business that needs a modest 1,000 square feet translates into $300,000 a year.

DiPaolo, whose design and construction management firm’s clients have included companies such as Orthovita and Fujirebio in Malvern and BioCoat in Horsham, said that for the past few years he has searched for a building that could house companies that are past the incubator stage, but not big enough for their own building.

The Plymouth Meeting space became available after Genaera, a publicly traded company that unsuccessfully tried to develop therapeutic products from substances found in frogs and sharks, went out of business in 2009. The building was on the market for more than a year before DiPaolo signed his deal with Alexandria Real Estate Equities Inc.

DiPaolo sees the center as home to all types of tech businesses, not just life sciences companies in need of lab space.

“We don’t want to discriminate,” he said. “We’ll talk to anybody who is interested in coming in and taking space.”

Occupying 5,000 square feet for its own offices, ProTecs has leased 75 percent of the remaining space to three companies.

Already moved in is a unit of Cryotech, a division of General Atomics International Services Corp. of San Diego, which develops de-icing technology used on airplane wings.

“This was a good fit for us” said Glenn Wallace, a technologist at Cryotech. “We are a small operation [with three employees]. They had a pretty well-developed lab here. We can stay focused on our work in the lab and [ProTecs] takes care of everything else with the building.”

Vascular Strategies, which is developing therapies to reverse atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), has also signed on for space after having outgrown its home at the Lankenau Institute for Medical Research (LIMR) in Wynnewood.

Oxycare, a new company that provides services involving oxygen therapy delivered in hyperbaric chambers, is finalizing a lease for space at the site.

The remaining 5,000 square feet could be taken by anywhere from one to three companies depending on the needs of the business, DiPaolo said.

The center features communal space — conference rooms, a break room, a reception area — shared by all tenants. DiPaolo said the center won’t be like a traditional incubator, where startups are provided with shared support services in areas such as marketing or accounting, but outside consulting firms will be brought in to discuss services they can provide to tenants.

“There’s really nothing like this in Montgomery County,” he said.

Karen Hanson, executive director of Elkins Park-based BioStrategy Partner — a virtual incubator organization that serves early-stage life sciences companies — said the center will fill a need.

“The availability of lab space is a huge issue,” Hanson said. “This space is great for somebody in an incubator to graduate to when they don’t need their own business but do need their own space.”

DiPaolo is planning to collaborate with other suburban tech centers and incubators, such as LIMR, the Pennsylvania Biotechnology Center of Bucks County in Doylestown, the Bridge Business Center in Bristol and The Innovation Center at Eagleview, a new life sciences incubator in Chester County developed by the Hankin Group.

The centers are in Keystone Innovation Zones, which give tenants access to up to $100,000 in state tax credits. BioStrategy Partners is helping lead the effort to network all the facilities.

“It will be great to have them work together because the different facilities are geared toward different types and stages of companies,” Hanson said.

With the Plymouth Meeting space almost fully leased, DiPaolo is looking for additional vacated properties where he can duplicate the model.

“Here, instead of somebody buying the building and taking everything out to create more office space, we’ve done something that creates more value for the economy,” he said. “Lab space is more valuable than office space.”
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