Lab space race

Finding lab space for startups and independent researchers in Houston needs to be easier, according to this expert

Rentable lab space is hard to come by. Getty Images

Finding coworking space is getting easier and easier for startups, but the same can't be said for startups looking for lab space. If Houston wants to continue to grow and develop its innovation ecosystem — specifically within research and development in the health sciences industry — the city needs more opportunities for small lab space real estate.

A little history

Houston has increasingly become a magnet for innovative life science companies, seeking to benefit from the Texas Medical Center's cadre of connections and the city's deep talent pool. While cutting edge research and licensed technology has long been a part of the TMC institutions and Houston landscape, until 2016, independent lab users had few options to start and grow their companies.

In March of 2016, JLabs at TMCx opened its doors, offering 34,000 square feet of shared office space, 22 private labs and two shared lab spaces. University of Houston's Innovation Center, located in a repurposed Schlumberger campus, began operation in September of the same year, offering 16 private labs and two shared lab spaces.

These two alternatives are fit out with benches and other specialized equipment and price their space similar to a furnished coworking model. However, both facilities have a preference for certain users.

In the case of UH's space, its priority is to accommodate companies that are licensing and commercializing university technology. JLabs also has a curated tenant pool — drawn from the local and national companies that fit their specific profile. Sharing lab space is not a fit for every company — especially those that are regulated or prohibited from doing so. What appears to be an unmet need is affordable independent lab space for companies ready to launch from shared space.

Unique requirements

Aside from equipment that must be purchased and installed, lab users require more electrical power, plumbing, and air-conditioning than typically found in available suites in independent office parks. Second generation lab space under 2,000 square feet is extremely hard to find, and traditional landlords prefer a 5-year lease commitment.

While several new projects have been announced — and a new crop of landlords are trying to capitalize on the city's increased demand for specialized space — their pricing model is a better fit for established companies. From a user perspective, given the capital constraints of early stage life science companies, it is worth exploring the option to convert traditional warehouse space for lab use in exchange for a medium term commitment.

Buyer beware

Migrating from a full service lab to an independent suite does come with a warning, however, especially if a company is regulated and the condition of the space is subject to inspection. Lab tenants are well advised to factor in issues like the age of the air-conditioning units, whether a future backup power source is permitted, and the method for removal of medical waste. For firms that are in the pre-revenue stage, they should also be prepared to pay some amount of prepaid rent and the cost of customized alterations.

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Julie King is president of NB Realty Partners. She has mentored and provided commercial real estate advice to technology, biotech, and early-stage companies for over 20 years.

There's a growing need for physician-scientists who can see from both sides of the table. Miguel Tovar/University of Houston

Physician-scientists are a group of specialized researchers at the intersection of medicine and technology. Earning both medical degrees and Ph.D.s, they offer a perspective beyond the scope of clinical practice.

Three such researchers discussed how they make the connections between discovery and patient care.

Why a dual education matters

Shaun Xiaoliu Zhang, director of the Center for Nuclear Receptors and Cell Signaling at the University of Houston and M.D. Anderson professor of biology and biochemistry, knows exactly what the clinical demands are.

"I can see from the M.D. perspective, but at the same time I have a Ph.D. — I know how to design research properly," he says. "In the clinic, you're faced with reality that a patient is struggling but you don't have the tools to treat those patients. If you engage in research you can create a tool."

Zhang says clinicians know the need but may struggle to design a solution. A Ph.D., on the other hand, may only know basic research.

Renowned hormone researcher Jan-Åke Gustafsson, Robert A. Welch professor of biology and biochemistry and founding director of the Center for Nuclear Receptors and Cell Signaling, agrees.

"The dual education makes it possible for you to see which diseases are in need of more research, drugs and so on," he says.

Physician-scientists are the driving force behind many advances of modern medicine.

"The way I look at it is, practicing medicine is relatively easy but coming up with the next diagnostic device or the next treatment for a disease is way more difficult, way more challenging," says Chandra Mohan, Hugh Roy and Lillie Cranz Cullen Endowed professor of biomedical engineering at UH.

"You see patients with certain diseases, and you know there's a dire need for better diagnostics, earlier treatment, earlier diagnosis with fewer side effects," he says.

While researchers spend time primarily in the laboratory and clinical practitioners interact with patients, they both want to make an impact.

"We have made some discoveries which have led to the development of new drugs and better understanding of certain diseases," says Gustafsson. "There's a great satisfaction that it may help people to get healthy."

Traditional research brings value to a university

The synergy of this dual education makes these investigators valuable not only to academia, but also to medical science.

"I can't imagine doing translational research without medical training," Zhang says. "If you have this part without the other, you don't know where to go. With medical training, you know exactly which direction to go."

Mohan echos that assessment.

"When you start doing research there are so many questions you can answer," he says. "Sometimes there are questions which are just too basic. They're too far removed from how it will impact a patient's life. So what are the most important questions? I think questions that really make a difference in the patient's life are the most important."

Zhang notes that the National Institutes of Health has switched its funding philosophy — once focused on basic science, it now is more interested in translational research, with a direct relationship to patient health.

As physician-scientists, these "translators" of medical research are able to bridge the chasm.

Amr Elnashai, vice president/vice chancellor of research and technology transfer at UH, says physician-scientists play an important role.

"The increasing importance of deploying technology in medicine renders it essential for a progressive research university to hire medical Ph.D. holders who are in an ideal position to bridge the gap between engineering and science on the one hand, and the broad field of medicine on the other," he says.

Research groups that bring both fields together not only have a much higher probability of impacting lives by adopting the latest technology in medical applications, he adds, but they also give interdisciplinary teams greater access to specific funding pursue such solutions.

In that sense, says Elnashai, medical Ph.D. researchers play an important part of the future research university.

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This article originally appeared on the University of Houston's The Big Idea.

Nitiya Spearman is the internal communications coordinator for the UH Division of Research.