The US Northeast Corridor: A Life Sciences Supercluster
With all eyes on the industry developing and manufacturing the vaccine, five markets across the US Northeast—Boston-Cambridge, Washington D.C., New Jersey, Philadelphia, and New York City—were named in the top ten US life science clusters by CBRE. Join Kaitlyn Blazer, business development manager at Structure Tone Philadelphia, as she discusses the life sciences construction boom with experts in the region: Pat Toner, STOBG VP and national life sciences sector leader, Stephen Neeson, SVP of operations and life sciences sector leader for Structure Tone New Jersey, and Nick Cassaro, senior life sciences project manager for Structure Tone Boston.
Kaitlyn BlazerAccount Executive, STOBG Global Services
Pat TonerVice President, STOBG Global Services
Stephen NeesonSenior Vice President, Operations, Structure Tone New Jersey
Nick CassaroFormer Senior Project Manager, Structure Tone Boston
Welcome to STO building conversations, a construction podcast powered by the STO Building Group. On today’s episode, we’ve gathered STO’s life science sector experts from New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, and Boston, to discuss the explosion of life science development across the Northeast, how these markets have been affected by the pandemic, whether the region can maintain this growth.
Hello, I’m Kaitlyn Blazer. I am the business development manager and our Structure Tone Philadelphia office. I’m pleased to be here today with a few of my colleagues to discuss the explosion of life science activity across the Northeast, particularly in Boston, New York, New Jersey and Philadelphia, each of which ranked in the top 10 of US top life science clusters report in October.
I am joined today by a few of my colleagues. We have Pat Toner, who’s vice-president and life science sector leader for STO Building Group, Steve Neeson, who is our senior vice president and life sciences sector leader in our New Jersey business unit, and Nick Cassaro, who is our senior project manager for life sciences in the Boston business unit. So, the life sciences sector is absolutely taking off in each of our respective geographic regions. Together, our markets account for 72% of existing life sciences inventory by square footage, 56% of under construction, life sciences inventory, and 40% of lab conversions. So, STO Building Group operates in every single one of these major metropolitan hubs supporting the life sciences supercluster. This questions is for all of us, we’ll start with Nick. How do you feel the markets within this region compared to one another?
Well, thank you and hi, everyone. So I guess the thing that I would say ties them all together, you know, going down the Amtrak area and how we support the supercluster is really the hospitals and the education that kind of runs from, from the Northeast. You have Harvard, MIT, predominantly that come out of the greater Boston area. New York, you have NYU and Columbia and then respectively Princeton and PENN Med further down. Um, I think what we’ve seen is thought leaders coming out of those respected areas that really lead to the development of novel therapeutics, real pharma and biotech to be led outside of those universities and those affiliations. I guess I would ask Pat and Steve what they see in that area as, as things develop and, you know, historically over the years.
Well, thank you, Kaitlyn, and Nick, always good to hear your voice. Yeah. So, I’m going to talk to New York. It’s an environment that’s highly dense in terms of not only the buildings, but the consulting and client community that reside there much like Philadelphia. We’ve seen an explosion in New York and bio clusters. Nick, much like what you have had in the greater Boston market and Cambridge, maybe that started 20 years ago, you can clearly hear New York City wanting to become the next Cambridge. So growth everywhere from long Island city in Brooklyn and major bio clusters in Manhattan. To name a few that continue to grow, there’s the 1st Avenue corridor on the East Side, which spans many blocks north to south up in the Columbia areas, Manhattanville and West Harlem further out than Manhattan. Then you have Midtown West and Hudson Square. And Nick, you mentioned one of the other areas institutionally that’s growing and continues to grow. And it’s the Biolabs at NYU Langone. So, a somewhat unique, but an environment that’s starting to want to become much like Nick, what you’ve grown up in your career experience in the Boston market. So, Steve, any reflections and comparisons to New Jersey.
Thanks, Pat. Yeah, I think New Jersey, having a long history of the traditional Fortune 500 big pharma, we’re seeing an increase, not only in investments in CapEx with those private clients, but we’re seeing an infusion of developer-driven programs, such as the center of excellence in Bridgewater, other developers repositioning existing real estate and urban areas like Jersey City. Cultivating more rural areas, Franklin township in Somerset, New Jersey, and obviously taking advantage of New Jersey’s incentives and JEDA choose New Jersey initiatives where we can continue that development and growth with up and coming, uh, life sciences companies and clients. You know, the previous trend that we were seeing in terms of CapEx spending was more around workspace of the future and campus and community environment developments and improvements infrastructure. And now we’re migrating heavily towards modernization of core science spaces, benchtop development, R & D. And we’re starting to see a real influx of new, smaller startup companies or brain trusts that are looking for a key space and trying to keep the talent here in the New Jersey region.
Yeah, I know that Philadelphia is also seeing a lot of activity with those startups for cell and gene therapy. Philadelphia is definitely an emerging hotspot for life sciences because of our proximity to eds and meds. We have the Cellicon Valley corridor that’s out in University City, that’s close to Penn and we have the Navy Yard and a couple other campuses that are popping up and our proximity to the suburbs is also a big life sciences hub for us as well. So this kind of transitions to our second question here, Pat, you oversee the Structure Tone life sciences division at a national level. How does the Northeast life science market compares to other regions around the country?
That’s an interesting question. If you look at the Northeast, on one hand that shares many common traits across the life science environment to those that I see nationally. On the other hand, however, what’s unique about the Northeast quite honestly, I think is the culture. There’s a sense of urgency and speed that influences not only the way that we look at business and conduct business, but actually it transcends into our personal lives. So work is pretty much forefront in the way that we conduct ourselves. The density again, I think is unique when I compare the Northeast to other traditional hotspots in life science, I’ll just say, Southern California, right now, it’s a hot spot. And, and you can compare and contrast let’s say Cambridge or New York City to LA or San Diego, certainly much different culturally and the way that business is conducted. So, there are many common but opposing similarities.
Certainly, COVID has influenced the way that life science is being conducted. I think that’s a common thread. I do believe that we have more institutional higher education, as well as medical institutions, partnerships that reside in a closer proximity in the Northeast. Again, it’s a function I think of the population and perhaps cell and gene therapy is advancing more so in the Northeast, particularly in Philadelphia. But as I mentioned before, I see it in Manhattan. So there are many other trends that seem to be common across the nation. And it has everything to do from a shortage of real estate for R & D and urban centers to clients, developers, looking for suburban places to invest capital and satisfy Many, many startups. We see commonalities across the nation in bio clusters, shared R & D environments, real migration in traditional corporate environment focus to now focusing on life science environments, and that includes everything from real estate professionals to consultants, to contractors, to developers all across the country. There’s been a significant influx of capital and funding, everything from the federal government to a state and local government, including incentives to invest in manufacturing in the US. So while those are all common across the country, I do think some of the things that makes the Northeast stand out include that need for speed, sense of urgency and the density of the eds and meds.
Yeah, I think the other thing Pat touched upon is historically for years, biotech has kind of been something that needs high clearance. You know, it can be on one or two stories, you can’t go in high rises. I think with those novel therapies and smaller scales but higher yields that we’re seeing, in terms of the science, supports those now to be kind of moving into New York, that can go more into high rises or multiple floor plates in the city of Boston. Whereas historically, you know, Steve can talk to have been one, two, maybe three stories max, and they just have to be rolling, rolling fields of facilities because to get the size yields that you needed, or the size of capacity for drugs that you needed, you needed these campus like environments. I think now, you know, novel therapeutics, what we’ll talk about later in terms of, you know, MRNA and novel therapeutics now can be more compact and keep them closer to urban environments. I know Steve in New Jersey, you’re seeing now these big rolling campuses turning over to being more of not just R & D but also smaller facilities. So it can be multitenant where it used to be these big, big facilities, right?
Yeah, absolutely. And the other trend is multi-tenant facilities, where they can advertise shared capacity for infrastructure. So, the distribution and the shared costs, you know, are built into lease arrangements rather than upfront costs by each of these smaller companies that may not be financially leveraged to basically get real estate propositions going on their own. So it is creating a benefit for ease of entry into high-tech spaces for some of these smaller companies,
Right. So that’s actually, one of my questions is I know that, this is a big hub, but are there any downfalls to the Northeast and why we wouldn’t be successful? Cause I know in Philadelphia we have limited space in University City and along with Cellicon Valley. So, how do we solve that problem of limited space to grow into for her lab space?
That’s where this real huge wave of speculative development is really taking hold and finding existing real estate that can be convertible to multiple uses. So, a lot of these developers, they’re not taking an attack plan of, I know it wants to be biomedical research or I know it wants to be bio chemistry or chemical biology. They just want to know that they’re going to have a facility that on spec, somebody’s going to say, that’s an attractive place to go. Wait a minute, you have full back up on generator, you’ve got a wastewater treatment separation system. You’ve got this, you’ve got central vac, lab, gas distribution infrastructure. I can move right in and build my clean space. That’s really where I think this push is coming from Kaitlyn is, is takeover available real estate and really cultivate it to solicit these kinds of customers.
Yeah. I mean, I think here, you put on the listing sheet on the side of the road, “life science ready,” and I think you’ve got about four or five cars pulling in and it’s just because of, okay, you got backup, you got a neutralization system. Okay, where do I sign? Because the rest of it is you’re starting with a Lowe’s or a skating rink. You know, you put life science ready, it could be R & D, it could be GMP, it doesn’t matter. I mean, that’s kind of where this market is. And I think Connecticut’s probably where it’s going to go because we’re running out of old buildings to fix. There’s not too many of them around here, you know, available anymore. At least in the 95 to 495 belt. We’re actually out into Worcester/Springfield now looking, which is crazy.
Now Waltham has historically been an extension of Cambridge. Is that an area that you feel is sort of maxed out as well?
Yeah, so that’s tapped out. Lexington is probably tapped out. Cambridge, Seaport tapped out. I think you’re now going to see Downtown Crossing’s probably next in line. And then you’re really out in the burbs Hopkinton, Steve, I know you know the area, Hopkinton, South Street’s tapped. Like there’s really nothing left. I was talking to a broker the other day that is from New Haven and he said, I’ve taken six calls today to go to Connecticut.
Do they want to come to Philadelphia? We’ve got plenty of space in our suburbs.
Here’s the thing that makes Connecticut enticing all of a sudden. If you really put together all the math, you have the education, you’re between the two metros. You can ride the Amtrak and, oh, by the way, the state’s willing to pay you right there. So, have at it. You can take West of Hartford, I’ll take East of Hartford. We’ll split the difference.
There you go. You
You know, and it’s not local brokers, it’s Colliers, it’s Cushman, it’s JLL. They’re all saying,
like really buckle up and everybody get used to driving 84, because we’re all going to be in Connecticut before you know it.
Great. So Pat, you kind of briefly mentioned it. The big elephant in the room is COVID-19, that’s obviously impacted all of us and it’s especially impacted construction in the life sciences industry. Has it stalled or has it accelerated construction, particularly in cities across the Northeast that were hit the hardest in the beginning of the pandemic?
Thanks Kaitlyn. So our experience in New Jersey, which is similar to other parts of the country is some of the work continued as essential as deemed by the state legislature and the governor. So, we had about 60% of our projects continue working because they were healthcare or life sciences driven work. So we had to collaborate our efforts on an STO Building Group global level to return to work at construction sites with safety top of mind. It was a great experience to collaborate with the customers and the facilities teams who were developing their own safe practices. So that synergy really resulted in successful development or programs, creating safe environments in the workplace. And I think what that did is it instilled confidence in our market and our industry to allow projects, to continue and be taken off the non-essential platform and be put into work can continue as regular as possible under COVID-19 procedures. So we resumed basically full construction on all of our projects within the first 75 days of the pandemic. And that continues today. We’re working on the logistics of keeping social distancing requirements, living in group gatherings, smaller work cohorts for trade workforce. And we’re starting to see investments in capital projects for a lot of touchless features, revamping of entries, lobbies, common spaces, restrooms. So there has been some targeted investment in some of those smaller CapEx projects around the state
And Kaitlyn, just to talk a little bit about the impact we saw right in March of this year, some different observations. Big pharma, for example, the client base that we call on quite often, almost all of the customers paused and they paused what I would call lower risk, non-critical projects and deploy teams probably centered around this operation warp speed directive. So everything from scientists to engineers, manufacturers, anyone in the supply and logistics chane, the planning that went into that, we saw those clients take a pause and many of those clients stayed at home. I would say that almost all those customers still had R & D scientists working around the clock on those sites and a lot of interaction with government and the agency officials trying to plan on ways to accelerate approval. So we’ve seen that happen on the big pharma side and acceleration for sure at different levels. I’m going to call it the startup Tier 2 and Tier 3 biotechs. Also acceleration by contract manufacturers that have been asked to take on some of this vaccine manufacturing and also a shift in manufacturing by that. I mean, that definitely funding at the government level, following the realization that we have a real shortage in North America for raw materials, the ability to manufacture in general, we’re seeing customers now kind of reprioritize capital in the future to prepare them to be more self-sufficient. So those are some of the, the other COVID-19 impacts I’ve seen.
Awesome. So Nick, you recently joined the Structure Tone Boston office, and you have a really good pulse on trends that drive this industry. Why do you think that the Northeast has emerged as this concentrated life sciences hub? And are you seeing any trends that are specific to the life sciences in the Northeast.
To Steve’s point, to talk to COVID, I mean, overall this year has been, you know, it was paused, it was stopped from March to May. And when, I mean, pause, I mean in construction, but I think what was happening in the background is something that we’re all going to hear and feel in years to come. What I mean by that is there has been a deep investment by venture capital, by developers, by architects and engineers, to really take a pause and look at how we build these facilities, how we interact with these facilities and how others may invest in these facilities. Part of what we saw in that timeframe in Quarter 2 of 2020 is I think there was more venture capital money that was invested in biotech this year in the middle of a pandemic than there was last year without a pandemic.
And that says something to where we are as an industry. I think people believe that what Pfizer, what Moderna are going to do in terms of using a novel therapeutic as a vaccine is only proving the case that novel therapeutics can be good for our industry and can be used for other types of diseases or health needs that people need. So what I see kind of as a trend going forward is overall, the Northeast is probably going to see more vaccines being developed in the next couple of years, more are going to be based around this novel therapeutic-like technology. And then I think you’re going to see oncology, rare diseases, orphan diseases start using this novel therapy for what they’re trying to research and find a cure for. So, I mean, I think what we’re going to see is what Madonna and what Pfizer have done now are really kind of the second wave of novel therapies.
So now we’re subsequently, now we’re going to start to feel the ripple effects of three, four, and five. And as they grow up, they’re going to touch all different facets of this mega cluster as they mature. You know, it seems like they start in urban areas and as they become bigger and have more of a commercial pipeline, they go into suburban areas where they can find more labor that they demand at a more reasonable price, but keep kind of the development and pipeline closer to the education. And they’re center of excellence, Pat and Steve have unique perspectives in their respective markets because Pat is, they’re growing to be what you know Boston is at. And then Steve is kind of supporting those companies as they’ve matured in terms of growing and now supporting them on a commercial level, past the growing pains, but more of maintain and support for their new drugs in their new cycles.
Yeah, I think one of the things we’re learning from some of our customers is the challenge around space planning and what the future needs are going to be. We’ve spoken with a few customers recently where they were heading towards, how do we have space that’s flexible to deal with the potential future pandemic impact, like social distancing workplace distancing, limiting, gathering spaces, converting multi-use rooms to private offices. So almost a sort of reflex to, how do we create a space that can handle some of this. We’re also learning from customers, as Pat said, that work from home opportunities that their staffs have. They’re proving that they’re still efficient, productivity losses are not what some would expect. And the contemplation of densifying workspace or reduction in space per head count may be a trend in the future. So we’re hearing customers with challenges around what is their future workspace look like.
Kaitlyn, just to add to that in terms of acceleration, it’s interesting because some clients can see the future in terms of what they want that workplace to be. Some customers have directed acceleration actually in the workplace while the employees stayed at home, they’ve asked construction firms like ours to mobilize and to prepare a better brighter work environment and improve work experience. There’s a great deal of competition to attract and retain the best and the brightest in life sciences today. And some customers are engaging us to, like I said, improve and modernize the workplace. To Steve’s point, a lot of clients are pausing, still trying to figure out what that model looks like, what the program is going to become or needs to be. And we see that in the fortune 500 category as well.
Awesome. So, we only have one more question and I want each of you to weigh in on it. So what do you believe is next for the life sciences industry and life sciences construction in the Northeast? Do you see the region continuing to dominate the sector? Pat, let’s start with you because you are our national leader.
Sure. Yeah. I’m a little bit cautious about saying that the Northeast dominates because there are a lot of other dominant regions in the country. I do think what’s unique about us today is the growth and the rate of growth. In some respects, that is dominating growth in other markets. What do I see for the future? I see the continued investment by venture capitalists, the continuation of partnerships, the advancement of personal medicines that Nick has talked about a couple of times and smaller scale environments for life science development. We’re seeing trend, customers are asking us to look at properties that have been vacant for some time, anything from small light industrial properties to most recently actually a skating rink that can be converted to small-scale manufacturing. So I see growth from urban centers out into suburbia and startups and in partnerships, including with venture capitalists. So, uh, everything that we’ve read suggests that life science will continue to be a sector with significant growth for years to come.
Awesome. Nick, what do you think, what do you think the future for life sciences in Boston is going to be?
I think we’re going to continue kind of being on the forefront of novel therapies and R & D for startup companies. I think we’re going to see year over year, the venture capital world still investing and believing in biotech. The vaccine race, I think probably proves that novel therapies can be fast reacting in a regulatory space. I think we’re at the point now of seeing landlords, trying to find that science of, you know, really investing in GMP manufacturing in terms of either a spec level or preparing buildings for more manufacturing. I think that’s going to become a common thing like R & D was about 10, 15 years ago when this special sauce was identified. And now the next wave is here. That’s probably what we’re going to start to see now as the spatial demands for very small pilot scale manufacturing has kind of been reduced and able to be done in multi-tenant buildings.
Yeah. I would echo all those sentiments. Obviously mergers and acquisitions over the years have driven a tremendous amount of activity in our marketplace. And now we’re seeing the emergence of a lot of joint ventures, larger companies acquiring the rights to smaller companies, product development, or their research and discovery products and contract arrangements seem to be emerging basically all throughout the globe in terms of who is contracted to either do research or do manufacturing. I would love to see small scale and pilot scale manufacturing really flourish here in New Jersey. I think it’s been a challenge over the years with the TP California and offshore manufacturing. So hopefully that’s a trend that will shape coming in the future, Nick, I hope you’re right.
Steve, to your point, I think that’s going to be something cause of COVID, you know, the larger guys have identified, they have to have siloed continents in terms of the supply chain. I think you’re going to start seeing kind of the bigger guy saying if we ever had COVID again—knock on wood we don’t—but if we did, each continent could live on their own where we’re not sending things to a filling facility in Ireland from New Jersey or vice versa. I think that that is something that we’re going to see in terms of, uh, independent supply chains via continents, I think is probably on its way to us for the bigger guys.
Awesome. So, I just want to thank each of you for joining us and talking today a little bit about the life science market sector in each of our geographic regions. I hope this is just the beginning of this discussion and we can continue to explore the development of life sciences along this life sciences corridor. So, thank you guys very much.
Thanks for hosting Kaitlyn. All right. Have a great day, be safe.
Thanks for listening to STO Building Conversations. For more episodes like this, you can find our podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or the Structure Tone website.