In the decade prior to COVID, when it came to early stage biotech companies establishing a foothold in Houston, space-wise, there were only a handful of options to choose from. Because of specialized equipment needs, including in many cases, the requirement for vent hoods, multiple sinks, and 24/7 air-conditioned space, traditional flex type projects were not a ready-made option. UH’s Technology Bridge offered those amenities, and while it worked for some, it was not intended as a permanent business home. Most emerging biotech firms found space that was a partial fit, and modified it to work (at their cost).
Houston’s Rise on the National Stage
For a variety of reasons, including its broad talent pool, lower cost of operations, and more favorable business climate, Houston has continued to attract biotech companies from other states. Following on the heels of new and expanding life science firms, and a supportive ecosystem, investor interest in building and purchasing properties to meet their specialized requirements has been a natural result. Unlike traditional office occupiers, lab users need physical space, and are not candidates for a hybrid or work from home model.
TMC Proximity Premium
Land costs inside Loop 610 have historically trended higher than suburban alternatives. For this reason, the newest projects completed near TMC like Helix Park and the planned Bioport are focused on much larger firms and institutions with the ability to commit to a long lease term and pay a premium rent. A second tier of real estate investors has also entered the market, however, purchasing nearby 80’s vintage projects, upgrading them, and repurposing the space to meet demand from mid-size or less creditworthy biotech companies. Existing small to mid-size tenants currently housed in these projects can expect to see bumps in both rent and expenses.
As an alternative to close-in options, but within a reasonable drive of the TMC, Pearland, Sugar Land and Stafford have increasingly become a location choice for biotech firms. Pearland’s EDC has targeted life science companies needing custom-built manufacturing facilities with economic incentives for some time. Lonza, Merit Medical, and formerly St. Paul-based Cardiovascular Systems are just three recent examples touted on their website.
Planning for Affordable Lab Space Options
Management teams for early stage companies are stretched thin, and are not always prepared for the time and money it takes to find and equip office/lab space.
Not all suburban landlords want to incur the sizeable costs for a customized build out, which can range between $40 and $200 per square foot. Entrepreneurs are also surprised by the 4-6 months of lead time it typically takes to identify space options, negotiate a lease, and permit and build the improvements (including the unexpected costs of bringing an older project in compliance with current energy and building codes).
However, with realistic expectations about these challenges, the good news is that once settled into a facility that is a fit, Houston’s emerging biotech companies can thrive and grow.
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 23 years.