ABI-LAB 2, in Natick, Massachusetts, is the result of both inspired thinking and the desire to create functional, attainable workspace for dedicated scientists researching potentially life-altering and life-saving products.
Designed as an accelerator and bio-incubator focused on assisting early stage companies, this four-story, 67,000-square-foot facility can house up to 45 startups delving deep into a variety of innovative life sciences.
The COVID-19 pandemic has greatly impacted many businesses and their functioning, contributing to, among other things, fewer tenants, long-term design modifications, and a heightened awareness and desire for safe, germ-free work spaces. While businesses continue to discover new and more effective ways to operate during this tumultuous time, bio-incubator business models can truly work to make positive change, functioning as ecosystems for laboratory specialties that demonstrate longevity as real estate investments in the post-COVID world.
Move in and start
Helmed by the design build expertise of Natick-based Dacon Corporation, ABI-LAB 2 opened in January, and the facility is now 70 percent occupied. Its appeal is multi-fold: more affordable rent, space to effectively socially distance from others during the pandemic, shorter and safer commutes, and customized working habitats.
“We like to say you can move in today and start your science tomorrow,” says Gary Kaufman, co-founder and chief operating officer of ABI-LAB. “It’s not just about space; it’s about helping people with problems and solving different experiments. We really do it all.”
ABI-LAB — which stands for Accelerated Bio-Incubator — provides private lab suites with office space and an option to configure larger lab spaces. Lab suites come standard with 24-foot benches, a sink, shelving, an eye-wash station, and a 10-by-5-foot island in most units. Infrastructure includes a deionized water system, CO2 gas, and a system for the removal of lab waste water. Residents also receive equipment, which includes freezers, double-door refrigerators, biosafety cabinets, and double stack incubators.
Common equipment includes a microbial fermentation room with standard equipment, autoclaves, glass washers, liquid nitrogen and a cell bank room, while shared lab equipment includes access to large and small specialty equipment, lab centrifuges, chemical hoods, bio-safety cabinets, spectrophotometers and fluorescent microscopes.
A space on the cutting edge
The unique facility houses a variety of companies conducting quality research more quickly and efficiently than might be enabled in a more traditional lab setup. Strategic partnerships, financial guidance, legal services and idea exchanges augment development, raising industry exposure and knowledge.
ABI-LAB 2 shares with its tenants a congruence of values to foster quality research with quality product. As such, they created partnerships with Thermo Fisher Scientific and Eppendorf to supply the communal labs, thus enabling a continuity of quality research.
VirTech Bio, a tenant creating a hemoglobin polymer to prevent traumatic blood loss, notes the partnership impact: “We chose ABI-LAB as it was set up for research, it was set up for science. We were literally doing experiments the day after our first box moved into the lab,” explains Rick Light, Chief Science Officer. ABI encourages exploration, experimentation, rapid learning and failures, while promoting a communal setting with shared equipment, amenities, collaborative partnerships, mentorship and, at times, financing.
A truly rare outcome
The building’s unique design creates an outstanding workspace where tenants can function with exceptional freedom.
“There are not too many buildings of this kind,” says Operations Director Jennifer Luoni. “We were very happy to be involved. It’s setting up people to be able to innovate medicines that a lot of people may not have the opportunity to otherwise,” she says. “It is a privilege to create spaces that will enable start-ups to grow and create medicines that will improve lives. It really is amazing.”
Working with Kaufman and the other principals at ABI was both fulfilling and challenging, says Luoni, taking Kaufman’s vision, pairing it with her laboratory knowledge and putting it into a four-story building that offered flexibility for multiple users at different times.
“It was like putting a puzzle together,” she says. “Not every lab carries out the same function, so there was an element of customization not found in other types of facilities.” While Luoni has extensive experience in designing labs, no previous project was quite like this one. Ensuring the infrastructure was flexible for future fit-ups, whether they were incubator labs or full lab fit-ups by a specific user, meant providing specific accommodations for many different users.
Natick’s building height restriction provided its own challenge, and designing accessible space that included nine-foot ceilings within that restriction was sometimes difficult as well. Building spaces that allowed air up to all four floors, but could still be tapped into during future renovations required some creative thinking, says Luoni.
“You have a nice ceiling height in the labs, along with six-foot windows enabling bench space efficiency yet allowing for maximum light, which creates a well-conditioned environment,” she says. “They don’t feel compressed.”
Filled with the possibility of creation
The end result is nothing short of spectacular. Whereas traditional city labs are dark and cramped, the entire facility is light, bright and spacious, featuring local art on every floor. It’s not only high-tech and functional, but welcoming and filled with possibility for creation.
“There’s high demand for affordable lab space,” says Luoni. “Being just outside of Boston, it’s more accessible for people.”
Both ABI-LAB and Dacon were pleased that the project came in under budget, not an easy feat when attempting to fit in all the specifics based on schematic drawings.
“Some people don’t see financial savings as a big challenge, but it is,” she says. “Once I get that floor plan and price, it’s my job to make sure everything I’m drawing meets client and tenant needs within the price that we said. It’s about finding balance between the two. It was a challenge, but also very fulfilling at the end of the project, when we were able to give them the look they wanted and the function they needed for the price promised.”
Dacon enjoys projects that enable innovation and growth through design integrity, particularly from the viewpoint of watching tenants working on projects that can truly make a difference. David Hysong, CEO of SHEPHERD Therapeutics, a start-up dedicated to finding rare cancer therapies, is one such success story.
“We consider ABI-LAB to be better than anything offered in the Boston ecosystem and at a percentage of the cost,” says Hysong. “It was a place to find our feet first of all, then it scaled as we scaled.”
More than 1.8 million Americans are diagnosed with cancer annually, and nearly one in three will be classified as rare. SHEPHERD therapeutics will start clinical trials on behalf of these patients within a year.
Saving money to save lives
ABI’s differentiation point is a core focus on understanding the start-up mindset which they believe is centered on the process. The business model centers on transforming buildings into customized working habitats. Cambridge, the nation’s epicenter for the life sciences, is too expensive for many startups. For ABI-LAB 2 tenants – who pay a gross one-year lease encompassing utilities, amenities and access to readily available shared equipment – monthly savings turn into triple digit returns. Residents experience up to a 62 percent savings in rent versus city rentals, totaling $200,000 annually.
While the uncertainty of the future and what it holds for traditional workspaces and environments is beyond the control of companies, seeing the effectiveness of the bio-incubator approach can provide hope, both financially and in practicality. The savings and communal benefits can lead to further innovation, changing lives, and creating new hope.
“There are going to be a lot of drugs and medical treatments that come out of these two buildings,” says Kaufman. “It’s not just about ones and zeros in your checkbook. It’s about helping people. It’s about making a difference.”