Fledgling Biotech Companies Grow in Harlem

By Jeff Mays on March 25, 2014 11:35am 

HARLEM — For years, a centrifuge sat in the space where otolaryngic allergist Dr. Bill Reisacher's coffee maker should have been.

Even as an assistant professor at Weill Cornell Medical College, Reisacher didn't have the laboratory space to pursue his idea for creating a better allergy test.

"We were working out of the trunk of our car," said Reisacher, who co-founded Immunovent to improve allergy tests by focusing on the nose and mouth, where symptoms occur. "I had this great idea, but you don't get lab space unless you have funding from the National Institutes of Health."

Then he heard about Harlem Biospace, a biotech incubator that opened last year in the Sweets Building at 423 W. 127th St. between Amsterdam and Morningside avenues in West Harlem.

Now the company is one of 19 that have quickly filled the former confectionery lab, which offers the equipment and space biotech companies need to pursue their ideas for only $995 per month with commitments as short as six months.

Companies at Harlem Biospace are developing products and techniques that deal with bone and tissue engineering, reducing complications from blood transfusions and treating osteoarthritis with new therapies to stimulate cartilage growth.

Andrea Tan, executive vice president of Exsponge, a company that is in the research and development phase of creating antimicrobial polymers that don't contribute to the problem of bacterial drug resistance, said being at Harlem Biospace has "made a world of difference" for the new company.

"If it weren't for this space we probably wouldn't have started this company in New York City," said Exsponge's chief technical director, Tyler Poore.

The company has so far developed a sponge created from antimicrobial polymers, but the material has a multitude of applications.

Affordable lab space was the missing element in expanding New York City's ability to retain biotech firms. New York already has the research universities and venture capitalists, but companies like Exsponge often left for places like Boston, which had the final element of affordable lab space.

"I'm not surprised at all at the success of Harlem Biospace," said Kyle Kimball, president of the New York City Economic Development Corporation, which funded building upgrades at the site. "It shows how sorely needed something like this is."

Now Harlem Biospace wants to start to give back with the launch of a summer camp called "HYPOTHEkids" for K-5 students and a summer internship for 10th and 11th-graders from high schools where more than 50 percent of the students qualify for free lunch.

"It's particularly important that the community that made this possible benefits from the programs we are creating," Kimball said.

EDC is also considering opening another biotech incubator in West Harlem where companies can go after they outgrow Harlem Biospace, something companies such as Immunovent are betting will happen sooner than later.

"We aren't going to stop until people start listening," Reisacher said.

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