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.

Natalie Goodman founded Incentifind, which connects home builders and commercial developers with green incentives. Courtesy of Incentifind

When asked about the origin story of IncentiFind — a Houston-based startup that connects real estate developers and home builders with green construction incentives — founder Natalie Goodman doesn't mince words.

"We're a complete accident," Goodman says. "I'm an architect. We didn't set out to have a startup."

IncentiFind's mission is to increase the amount of green developments and construction projects in the U.S. The company is equipped with a massive database of green incentives that are offered by utility, county, city, state and federal agencies. Many home builders or commercial developers don't take advantage of green incentives because they're simply not aware of them, Goodman says.

"The government is strapped — they have all this money that they want to give away, but not the (marketing) money to get the word out," Goodman said. "That's where IncentiFind stepped in."

Goodman said IncentiFind's goals differ slightly for commercial and residential developers. For commercial developers, the database is built to be simple, predictable and intuitive. For home builders, the model is to make IncentiFind as simple and inexpensive as possible, since new homeowners are already shelling out cash for home improvement projects.

Commercial developers can expect to spend around $1,500 with IncentiFind, while homeowners can expect to spend between $50 and $150.

By tapping into IncentiFind's resources, Goodman says that clients can expect up to a tenfold increase on their investment with IncentiFind — all while developing in an environmentally conscious way.

An 'overnight' surge in demand
Goodman started building the infrastructure for IncentiFind several years ago, and long before she thought she'd one day be running a startup. She was a sustainability architect, living overseas and seeing that green architecture was far more common around the world than it was in the U.S.

Once she returned to the U.S., Goodman called a good friend at the Department of Energy, and asked where she could find a central database for green construction incentives in the U.S. She was told that a central database didn't exist, and probably never would.

"So, I created it selfishly just for me," Goodman says. "I thought [that I was] going to have this tiny little architecture firm, and we're going to do all things green."

At that time, several outdated incentive databases were still funded by public agencies. But at the end of 2017, a massive defunding of databases meant that Goodman's resource was the only one of its kind in the U.S.

Following the defunding of those databases, Goodman saw a surge of activity to her website from people who used to rely on those databases as go-to resources.

"Overnight, we saw that traffic come to us," Goodman says. "We didn't do any marketing — it was all organic. People were desperate to find this information. We weren't high on Google."

From Houston, to Austin, to Houston again
From there, Goodman decided to take her database to the next level. Six employees were hired, and in April 2018, IncentiFind officially launched in Austin in The Capital Factory, a major startup incubator. Goodman and the IncentiFind team were commuting from Houston. She wanted to launch the business in Houston, she said, and while there were a lot of exciting developments underway at Station Houston, Houston's startup scene was still clouded with uncertainty.

"There's already so much instability with a startup, and we can't surround ourselves with more instability," Goodman said.

IncentiFind graduated from The Capital Factory's startup accelerator in August 2018. From there, IncentiFind landed at The Cannon, and is continuing to grow in Cannon Ventures. In less than twelve months, Goodman said she's seen Houston's startup scene undergo a nearly 180-degree shift, in large part due to the growth of The Cannon.

"I truly think that they're going to put Houston on the map for a radically new service, because they'll actually roll up their sleeves and do work with you," Goodman said. "[They'll do more] than just send you links or give you 15 minutes to ask someone a question. They'll give you all the time in the world, and [give] as many hours as you want."