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.

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Houston-based imaware, which has an at-home COVID-19 testing process, is working with Texas A&M University on researching how the virus affects the human body. Getty Images

An ongoing medical phenomenon is determining how COVID-19 affects people differently — especially in terms of severity. A new partnership between a Houston-based digital health platform and Texas A&M University is looking into differences in individual risk factors for the virus.

Imaware, which launched its at-home coronavirus testing kit in April, is using its data and information collected from the testing process for this new study on how the virus affects patients differently.

"As patient advocates, we want to aid in the search to understand more about why some patients are more vulnerable than others to the deadly complications of COVID-19," says Jani Tuomi, co-founder of imaware, in a press release. "Our current sample collection process is an efficient way to provide longitudinal prospectively driven data for research and to our knowledge, is the only such approach that is collecting, assessing, and biobanking specimens in real time."

Imaware uses a third-party lab to conduct the tests at patients' homes following the Center for Disease Control's guidelines and protocol. During the test, the medical professional takes additional swabs for the study. The test is then conducted by Austin-based Wheel, a telemedicine group.

Should the patient receive positive COVID-19 results, they are contacted by a representative of Wheel with further instructions. They are also called by a member of a team led by Dr. Rebecca Fischer, an infectious disease expert and epidemiologist and laboratory scientist at the Texas A&M University School of Public Health, to grant permission to be a part of the study.

Once a part of the study, the patient remains in contact with Fischer's team, which tracks the spread and conditions of the virus in the patient. One thing the researchers are looking for is the patients' responses to virus complications caused by an overabundance of cytokines, according to the press release. Cytokines are proteins in the body that fight viruses and infections, and, if not working properly, they can "trigger an over-exuberant inflammatory response" that can cause potentially deadly issues with lung and organ failure or worse, per the release.

"We believe strongly in supporting this research, as findings from the field can be implemented to improve clinical processes-- helping even more patients," says Wheel's executive medical director, Dr. Rafid Fadul.

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