February 13, 2012

Company is First to Open in University’s New Center for Startups

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Correction appended

A new center in Weill Hall designed to house and support emerging businesses in life sciences fields welcomed its first research startup on Thursday. Equipped with extensive high-tech laboratory space, the recently-opened Kevin M. McGovern Family Center for Venture Development in the Life Sciences is expected to attract scientific talent to the University and bolster Ithaca’s economy, according to Lou Walcer, the center’s director.

The center was named for a trustee emeritus who donated $7.5 million to its creation in 2008, according to Walcer. In January, the University selected Glycobia, Inc., a company founded by Prof. Matthew DeLisa, chemical and biomolecular engineering, working to develop an efficient process for engineering therapeutic drugs from bacteria.

“The success rate for life sciences startups is three out of 10,” Walcer said. “So the University may lose money from this venture … But with my experience, and that of the staff here, we hope to give [Glycobia] the best chance of doing well.”

He noted that the assistance that the center will provide to Glycobia could prove crucial to the company’s chances of becoming profitable.

“One of the challenges of a baby life sciences company is to get access to high-tech labs with fancy equipment and infrastructure,” Walcer said. “The company will bring talented professionals and jobs to campus, and we will give [Glycobia] what they might not have the required time and money for.”

DeLisa said Glycobia had recently outgrown its current laboratory space, adding that he hopes forging ties with the University will open opportunities for the company.

“The quality of space and location will be a game changer for us to recruit the best possible talent to Ithaca and to our company,” DeLisa said. “We think that having space and proximity to the University will help us realize our goals scientifically.”

Walcer said that Glycobia was selected to use the space primarily due to the quality of its intellectual property and the societal importance of the technology it is working to develop. For example, he said, the company is attempting to increase the efficiency of its pharmaceutical development.

“A lot of drug companies are going to come banging on their door,” Walcer said. “And we will have helped them and we will get paid for our services … The University will make money.”

Glycobia will occupy one laboratory suite among seven in the center, which is located on the north side of Weill Hall’s fourth floor. The new space will allow the company to expand its staff, Walcer said.

“Glycobia only has five people now, but we expect them to double their staff within 12 months,” he said.

DeLisa also said that access to talented Cornell faculty will help the company increase the volume of its work output.

“In a period of one-to-three years … we’d like to expand our portfolio, triple or quadruple it in terms of inventions,” he said.

Mayor Svante Myrick ’09 said he hopes Glycobia’s presence in the McGovern Center will attract similar businesses to both the University and the larger Ithaca area.

“Our economy in Tompkins County has always been based on education,” Myrick said. “If we can convince startups in the life sciences, in high-tech sectors … to start in Tompkins County, we could revolutionize our economy.”

Myrick added that he hopes more startups will eventually choose to base their businesses in Ithaca in particular.

“In 10 years … I would love to see the first generation of companies, like Glycobia, buying lab space in the city of Ithaca, expanding beyond the 10 employees to 100 and deciding to stay here,” he said.

However, according to DeLisa, Glycobia will likely remain in Ithaca for “a short period of one-to-two years.” He noted the advantages of building up the company and relocating to the Boston area, which he called as “a hub of biotechnology enterprise.”

“The center is viewed as a short-term solution to help a company get to where it needs to be,” DeLisa said. “A more relative question might be, down the road, will the company stay in Ithaca or will the decision be made to move? It will be a tough decision … There are compelling reasons to stay and reasons to go.”

Myrick stressed the advantages that companies like Glycobia can obtain from continuing partnerships with the University for a longer period of time, citing the access to talented students and professors available in the Ithaca area. He added that modern advancements in telecommunications technology give companies more freedom in choosing their location than in the past.

“Ithaca is one of the best cities to live in,” he said. “Today, you don’t have to be in the same city or state as people you’re doing business with. You can base your choice on where you want to live, not where you have to go to be successful.”

Myrick added that he hopes to see the center “100 percent full of companies and businesses” within the next 10 years. He said he intends to work with both the city and the University to create the necessary lab space for other startups to move into the McGovern Center in the future.

“We offer cheaper real estate than in Boston or New York City … with the intellectual capital that is the building blocks of any company,” Myrick said.

Correction: A previous version of this story contained several errors. The story incorrectly reported that the University selected Glycobia — the first company to be housed in the Kevin McGovern Family Center for Venture Development — in June. In fact, the company was approved by the University in January 2012. The story also incorrectly reported that the center searched for a startup company for several years.  In fact, the center had already begun “virtually” incubating companies — providing services and guidelines to prevent startups from failing — several years earlier. The story also incorrectly implied that Glycobia will occupy the entire fourth floor of Weill Hall. In fact, Glycobia will occupy one laboratory suite among seven in the center, which is located on the north side of Weill Hall’s fourth floor.

Original Author: Kerry Close