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Atlanta’s Nascent Life Sciences Industry Getting A Big Boost, But Is It Enough?

A development taking shape around Georgia Tech isn’t just adding to Atlanta’s innovation economy. For many in the nascent biotech industry, it’s a symbol that the city can step onto the national life sciences stage.

But the excitement around the 18-acre Westside development underscores Atlanta’s need for a lot more labs, and business development, if the city wants to live up to its potential as a biotech gateway city.

“What we’re lacking is on the business side,” Atlanta CBRE Senior Vice President Steven Barton said. “What we’re not really seeing much of are companies coming here from the West Coast and the Northeast saying, ‘Let’s take Atlanta life sciences to the next level.’ To really make things happen here, we need the talent and we need the businesses, both big and small. We now have the talent, who are full of great ideas, but we’re still waiting for those key businesses to take all of those ideas to the next level.”

A rendering of Science Square, the mixed-use life sciences campus next to Georgia Tech in Atlanta.

Atlanta hasn’t yet been able to fully realize its life sciences potential. With more than 2,000 in-state life sciences and global health organizations and R&D leaders, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Georgia and Atlanta have the brainpower and educated workforce, as well as a favorable cost of living.

And during the pandemic era, according to Barton, National Institutes of Health funding brought in more students and teachers interested in the industry. Local universities turn out more than 2,000 graduates in biological and biomedical sciences annually, he said, but lab and business development has been slow to follow.

Tony Zivalich Jr., associate vice president of real estate at Georgia Tech, told Bisnow in 2021 he felt the city had the potential to capture overflow talent and development, and some of the expansion pushing the industry into new regions. 

“We’re better than we’ve ever been in terms of stepping up,” Zivalich said in 2021. “We have a pipeline of real estate development focusing on the life sciences space.”

But that promise has yet to be realized. Just this month, the Center for Global Health Innovation backed out of a 200K SF lease at Tower Square in Atlanta’s Midtown after failing to raise enough capital, Bisnow first reported.

Science Square, which broke ground last summer, has been a focal point of that ambition for growth. Located on the south side of Georgia Tech, it’s a partnership between the university and Trammell Crow. The first phase will include a 365K SF Class-A lab and office tower and a 280-unit residential building. It will top out this August and deliver early 2024. Eventually, the five-phase development will include 1.8M SF of commercial lab space.

Barton said biotech companies looking to expand in Atlanta had to set up shop at local universities, since the amount of available space was sparse. Science Square will change that dynamic, and ideally spur more lab development.

It’s not the only recent news showing more enterprise growth in Atlanta life sciences. MRNA pioneer Moderna announced last March that it would open an enterprise center in the city. Last October, Ancora L&G paid $84M for a 128K SF life sciences property located inside what will be the larger Science Square Innovation District. And in December, suburban Gwinnett County announced plans for a proposed 2,000-acre hub for research in medicine, agriculture and environmental sciences, a Research Triangle for Georgia.

Barton believes Science Square is a start, but there’s much ground to make up. But that doesn’t mean emerging clusters like Atlanta won’t make it. 

“Life sciences development activity has been dampened, but so has everything else,” he said. “We’re seeing a drop in development activity across the board. It doesn’t matter what real estate specialty you’re in. I think we will still see activity happen and projects being announced. They just may not move ahead as quickly as they did before.”