What do outsiders think of when they think of Brooklyn? Bagels? Sure. Baseball? Absolutely, even after 50 years without the Dodgers. Churches? Heavens, yes. Biotechnology? Not yet, but soon, if some local boosters have their way.
“Silently but surely, Brooklyn’s reputation as a center for biotechnology research is getting stronger every day,” said Dr. Eva Cramer, vice president of biotechnology and scientific affairs at the State University of New York’s Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn.
The Oxford American College Dictionary defines biotechnology as the exploitation of biological processes for industrial and other purposes. For example, through biotechnology a scientist might be able to create a microscopic organism, which naturally produces a vaccine that now has to be manufactured artificially.
Boosting Brooklyn’s biotechnology potential is nothing new. The Brooklyn Biotechnology Consortium, founded in 2001, helps connect investors with innovative biotech firms and tries to locate workspace in Brooklyn. In addition to Downstate, the consortium includes public entities such as the Brooklyn Borough President’s Office, business groups like the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce and private companies, including Pfizer Inc., Con Edison and KeySpan Corp. Also well-established is the New York Biotechnology Association, a statewide organization of more than 250 biotech companies, research institutes and professional services.
One of the focal points of Brooklyn’s biotech future is Downstate’s Advanced Biotechnology Incubator at 760 Parkside Ave., which provides well-developed space, complete with labs, for fledgling biotechnology companies. The six companies in the 11,000-square-foot space built for Phase One have done so well that a second phase with 13,000 additional square feet opened last year and a third phase with 26,000 square feet is planned for this year.
Three of the companies from Phase One have grown and will take some Phase Two space along with two new companies, but one organization, the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, is poised to “graduate” and leave altogether for high-tech space being developed in the Brooklyn Army Terminal, a vast array of warehouse buildings on Brooklyn’s western waterfront near 58th St. and First Ave.
Cramer noted that “$54 million had already been raised for the renovation of 130,000 square feet at the Brooklyn Army Terminal and said the goal was to occupy as much as 450,000 square feet. The space would be available to all biotech ventures, not just those growing out of Downstate’s incubator”, she said.
“Things are moving pretty quickly,” said Cramer. “What we really want to do is to make Brooklyn the center for biotech from all over the world.”
“The International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, a not-for-profit organization with offices in New York and San Mateo, Calif., as well as The Netherlands, Kenya, South Africa and India, had been supporting other AIDS programs but Downstate’s incubator gave it a chance to develop its own research facility,” said Cramer.
“They had been supporting programs around the world,” she said. Now the IAVI will expand its facilities in the extra space available at the Brooklyn Army Terminal.
Despite its success, Downstate’s biotech incubator has grown with almost no fanfare and little publicity. “People came by word of mouth,” said Cramer. “Then it started to grow on us.”
Of course, once you have a biotech company up and running, you need more than good ideas-you need workers, preferably trained ones, said Cramer. Fortunately, help in building the workforce is already in place. The Brooklyn-based Workforce Strategy Center has set up a biotech industry training program at the City University of New York’s Hunter College in Manhattan, said Cramer.
“It’s open to science majors throughout the CUNY system,” explained Cramer. “It’s obviously good for the students who are coming out of school, but it’s also a good program for the companies.”
So where does the biotech industry go from here? According to Cramer, anywhere it wants-as long as it goes through Brooklyn.
By Robert S. Anthony