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Mount Sinai Scientists Push for East Harlem Biotech Incubator

By Amy Zimmer | August 27, 2013 7:40am
 A group of scientists from Mt. Sinai Hospital's medical school are hoping to build a biotech incubator in East Harlem.
Biotech Incubators Bloom in City
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EAST HARLEM — Scientists who create life-saving drugs want to turn East Harlem into the next biotech hub.

Five female scientists from Mount Sinai Hospital's medical school are planning to launch a nonprofit, shared work space in East Harlem that will nurture medical startup companies.

The group called KiiLN — Keystone for Incubating Innovation in Life Sciences — will serve as a home base for more than a dozen fledgling companies seeking to cure diseases, and will meet a need among city scientists, said Nicole McKnight, whose lab is getting a patent for an Alzheimer's disease drug.

"There's no place here [for scientists] to pop up the road and visit their lab space, as they do at MIT," she said.

 The Sweets Building, which is the former name of the building that will house Harlem Biospace at 423 W. 127th St. 
The Sweets Building, which is the former name of the building that will house Harlem Biospace at 423 W. 127th St. 
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Emon Hassan

The scientists' behind KiiLN — which is fundraising for $3 million — want to help New York's blossoming biotech community rival those in San Francisco, San Diego and Boston, to prevent scientists from the city's top-notch academic institutions from leaving the city to do research.

The biggest hurdle in New York City, however, is finding affordable space.

“The New York real estate market is a beast, but we’re confident we can do this,” McKnight said. “We are entrepreneurial-minded scientists, and we believe in the model of spinning out your research to create drugs.”

The group has focused on East Harlem because of its relative affordability and its proximity to major Manhattan medical institutions — a key component of successful biotech models in other cities.

"[East Harlem is] slightly more affordable right now, and it's our backyard," McKnight said.

McKnight and her partners — Ilse Daehn, Gabriella Casalena, Merina Varghese and Yana Zorina — hatched the plan last year when they were post-docs in the inaugural class of the Center for Technology, Innovation and Entrepreneurship at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

They are an international group that plugged into New York’s science community after earning their PhDs around the globe.

McKnight, who is American, earned hers from University College London. Daehn, an Aussie whose research has made strides in understanding chronic kidney disease development, got hers from Flinders University, in south Australia. Casalena, who works on kidney disease in the same lab as Daehn, studied at the University of Bologna, in her native Italy. Varghese, who works on neurodegenerative diseases earned hers at Jadavpur University in India, where she’s from. And Zorina, who recently left academia for a biotech company working on neurological disorders, earned her doctorate at Mount Sinai.

The scientists want the incubator to fill a void between Harlem Biospace, a 2,300-square-foot lab at 423 W. 127th St., which will house small companies in the earliest stages, and the Alexandria Center for Life Science, a 310,000-square-foot tower along the East River near 30th Street that will eventually be part of a 1.1-million-square-foot campus.

They are eyeing a 10,000-square-foot site near Mt. Sinai. They declined to disclose the address, but said the space has been vacant for five years and could house laboratories as well as seminar and conference rooms where they would host lectures for the community.

The group has brought in an urban planner to help with their fundraising goal as they look to partner with a developer or institution to turn their model for KiiLN into a reality.

They hope to launch their own disease-fighting projects at KiiLN.

“We spend years on research and want to see our work really affect peoples lives," said Daehn, 34, who is now an assistant professor at Mount Sinai. "It’s not just about publishing something in an interesting journal or ‘Will I get my tenure?’”

The women envision KiiLN as a “dynamic” lab — meaning companies will get the space and mentoring they need to take off and eventually move out on their own.

KiiLN’s East Harlem hub could even spawn development in the Bronx, much like startups close to MIT, in the formerly industrial area of East Cambridge, Mass. McKnight said. 

“Maybe the South Bronx will be the next East Cambridge,” McKnight said. “There are huge warehouses there and huge potential.”