Consider the typical laboratory space: dropped ceilings, linoleum floors, fluorescent lighting, veneer countertops. Windowless caves where scientists hunch over their microscopes and computers, utterly sterile and isolated.
That’s a far cry from Harlem Biospace, New York’s first biotech incubator, located in a former industrial stretch of west Harlem. I am standing in the reception area with cofounder Christine Kovich, where fat silvery ductwork snakes overhead on the 15-foot ceilings and a whimsical "chandelier" of exposed Edison light bulbs, designed by Cassidy Brush of Brooklyn’s Urban Chandy, hangs from a base of reclaimed wood,
This spare yet inviting area also serves as a lecture hall and a communal gathering spot for tenants. The benches, built by Recycled Brooklyn, are upholstered in Korean War-vintage Army tents. They’re made of wood reclaimed from New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority–-as are their coffee tables, which do double duty as comfortable stools. Throughout the space, polished concrete floors gleam under foot and soft northern light from the oversized windows bathes the main workspace. Quaint desk lamps, handmade by Ryden Rizzo, owner of Allied Maker, line the long, rustic wooden desks. A large chalkboard framed in reclaimed wood hangs on one wall, adding a nostalgic touch.
"What we wanted to do here is create an environment that is very different from what scientists are used to," says Kovich, who is married to her cofounder, Sam Sia, a professor of biomedical engineering at Columbia University and a biotech entrepreneur who has labored in his share of drab, uninspiring laboratories.
Sia’s own search for suitable lab space for his latest venture, Junco Labs LLC, which is developing a handheld diagnostic device, led him to approach the city about establishing a biotech incubator. The New York City Economic Development Corp. agreed to kick in $626,000 over three years, and the couple opened the center in November 2013.
To date, 17 biotech startups have taken up residence at Harlem Biospace, and are renting out 23 of the 24 desk spaces. Tenants also share the use of lab benches, a microscope shielded by a photo-sensitive curtain, and all the other equipment they would normally have to buy themselves. Each company commits to a minimum of six months but can stay as long as three years. Among them: Ex Vivo Dynamics, which is developing technology to reduce complications from blood transfusions; Rho Nanodiagnostic Corporation, which is working on minimally invasive treatments for osteoarthritis using molecules to stimulate the growth of cartilage cells; and Immunovent, which is developing a rapid, needle-free test to diagnose many food and airborne allergies that current methods can’t detect.
Sia, who was on the phone with a VC when I arrived, popped in for a tour of the Core Facilities Room, where scientists will conduct experiments. All of the equipment is scaled down to fit their relatively small space. Take the autoclave, used to decontaminate glassware and instruments. In most labs, the machine is nearly the size of a room. At Harlem Biospace, it sits on the floor underneath the lab bench. There’s also a benchtop centrifuge, a safety shower, a chemical fume hood for doing experiments, a perfectly serviceable ice machine purchased on eBay for $200 (lab quality wasn’t necessary), purified water for experiments, a cell-culture hood, incubators, and a sink, among other things. "Believe it or not, in this room I think we actually have all the functionality of a lab which is probably 10 times this size," Sia says. "It’s like a studio apartment for scientists." Design wasn’t the half of it. They also had to comply with all the health and safety codes for laboratory facilities.
Over the years, Kovich and Sia have had many conversations about the need for more user-friendly design in the biomedical field. They hope an inspiring, well-conceived workspace, the kind that tech workers at Google or Apple may take for granted, will lead biotech entrepreneurs to think more seriously about designing for the people who use their products.
Briefly, Kovich contemplated buying furniture from industry giant Steelcase. During a trip to the Manhattan showroom to look for a stand-up reception desk, she had a moment of déjà vu as she gazed upon the very same chairs and other furniture she’d left behind at MasterCard, her former employer. Wanting something unique and less corporate, Kovich decided then and there to go with independent designers.
In March, Kovich attended "Hello Etsy," a conference sponsored by Etsy that serves as a vast marketplace for hand-crafted goods. There, she made the connections that would lead her to hire various Etsy artisans, among them furniture maker/choreographer John Sorensen-Jolink, who designed their standup reception desk as well as the workstations, which are made from reclaimed iron and wood salvaged from neighboring industrial buildings. "That Etsy event was such a seminal moment for me in terms of getting back in touch with creative energy," Kovich says. "I shook off the decidedly unimaginative environment I was in for so many years."
For Kovich, who used to work with entrepreneurs disrupting the payment industry, designing the space became an adventurous journey and an iterative process, with one Etsy craftsperson referring her to another. One notable exception: she and Sia settled on Herman Miller Aeron chairs because they’re ergonomic and comfortable.
The look Kovich was going for was very "Edison lab Steampunk," she says. Imagine Nikola Tesla, the Serbian-American inventor working away in his Manhattan laboratory around 1891, inventing his eponymous Tesla Coil that produced a spectacular, crackling flash of lightning with alternating currents. "That was a time of great discovery and innovation and people coming together," says Kovich. (Or in the case of Edison and Tesla, quarreling.)
In fact, Kovich is so enamored of Tesla–-she calls him their "patron saint"— that she commissioned desktop busts of Tesla from Etsy sculptor Chris Oricchio, of Brooklyn-based Decor Atelier, which are for sale along with Rock Star of Science T-shirts from Etsy-based Megan Lee Studio and other science-themed designs curated by Kovich. Proceeds benefit the incubator’s science education program at a local school.
The advantages of using local artisans were more than esthetic. Harlem Biospace built out the lab space for about $250 a square foot—about half of the usual cost. Those savings helped translate into low rents for tenants, who benefit from sharing pricey lab equipment, get free mentoring and business seminars, and plenty of free coffee from New York roasters.
"The feedback we’ve gotten from pretty much everyone who has walked in here," says Kovich, "particularly scientists who are used to these less-than-inspiring environments is, like, ‘Wow!’"