More CRE Firms Are Hiring Scientists As They Race To Keep Up With Lab Demand
When Pat Larrabee began working in the life sciences industry in the 1980s, she was the sixth hire at Maryland biotech company Crop Genetics International, starting out as a bench researcher, literally washing and cleaning glass beakers and learning the industry from the ground up.
Roughly a decade later, the company asked Larrabee, who studied biology and has a master's degree in biotech management, to take on a new type of research project: help it consolidate a portion of its real estate portfolio, its field test sites, which were located across multiple states.
“My bosses said, ‘You understand the science, the compliance and the business aspects of this. Go figure it out,’” she said. “It was a learning curve, but one way or another, I’ve been figuring that out ever since.”
Larrabee today is the founder and president of Facility Logix, a Maryland-based consulting firm that helps clients navigate the life sciences real estate industry. Once a pioneer in the field, she is now operating in a much different environment, where contractors, architects and developers all specialize in life sciences construction.
But as the industry continues to see record growth and expansion, and it faces hiring shortfalls as the science itself quickly evolves, the need to hire ex-scientists has taken on a new urgency.
“The pool of talented people was never huge,” Larrabee said. “And now, real estate firms like CBRE, JLL and Cushman [& Wakefield] are all racing to hire people.”
The industry has specifically focused on scientists with backgrounds in operations or management, which can transfer to the project management needs of development.
Sterling Bay, for example, hired Dr. Suzet McKinney, who has a science and innovation district background, as principal and its director of life sciences, and T3 Advisors, a Savills company focused on lab planning, announced the hiring of a pair of Boston-area scientists, Sharon Wilhelm and Ryanne Boursiquot, in September.
“Do we want more scientists in real estate? The emphatic answer is yes,” said James Sheppard, life science partner and managing director with Kadans in the UK.
Sheppard studied pharmacology and started his career in academia before crossing over into real estate — he was previously Cushman & Wakefield's head of life sciences, based in London.
“The analytical approach and the ability to dissect tenant requirements becomes a really valuable skill set," Sheppard said.
It seems obvious that scientific experience would be a huge advantage for selling lab space and attracting tenants. When new startups talk about the specific requirements of their cell culture space, Larrabee said her background is incredibly helpful: She has done the work, and has the basis and grounding to thinking through workflows and what may or may not present a contamination risk.
With speed-to-market being so critical in a market with huge demand, real estate firms need to understand exactly what clients want and avoid mistakes in design and layout.
"For me, understanding the processes each of these companies are focused on makes a big difference,” said Boursiquot, who has a decade of molecular biology experience at Brandeis University and lab management experience at Mass General Hospital. “Having this level of expertise means not putting a client in a facility they can’t use. Speaking scientist-to-scientist means pulling out the details, which are really critical to prevent mistakes.”
It is easier to train those with scientific talent to understand the intricacies of real estate than to train brokers in the operations of a biotech facility, Sheppard said. The way his firm and many others are set up, scientific talent, so to speak, is surrounded by staff that can help advise on the intricacies of leases and development timelines. He’s currently looking to fill four positions and struggling to find someone with the right experience and fit.
Scientists with operational experience are also in high demand by biotech firms themselves. T3 principal RJ Panzo says part of his pitch to talent is the ability to work with many different types of firms and research — and make higher salaries.
”A lot of my friends in science have had an 'a-ha moment,' realizing what they can now do with a post-doc degree, and don’t have to be a lab tech,” Boursiquot said. “People are excited to find there aren’t one or two lanes you need to take as scientists.”
Biotech science has always been fast-moving and ever-changing. But what has also shifted is the competitiveness and desire by larger landlords to keep existing tenants as they grow.
Sheppard sees that tenant services role as perhaps the biggest advantage to hiring former scientists. Kadans' ecosystem engagement team, which ensures all tenants are able to access equipment, talent and connect the dots — sort of a scientific concierge service — is attractive for scientists. Having a team member who can connect the dot for tenants is valuable, he said, because the landlord-tenant relationship in life sciences is far more personal and involved than other sectors of real estate.
“It’s difficult to find someone with that deep scientific background who can be commercial and have that commercial savviness,” he said.
Sheppard said there isn’t a particular type of scientist he is looking to hire, outside of those with entrepreneurial experience. In the UK, many science programs have classes or modules focused on that skill set, which provides exposure to the commercial world and ultimately makes them better hires.
Panzo agreed about the entrepreneurial focus — T3 is seeking those who want to “chart a new path in business,” and plans to hire more scientists in top markets including North Carolina, San Diego and San Francisco.
Ultimately, both underscored the benefit of being grounded in the scientific method. Beyond the specificity of lab equipment, the analytical skills that scientists offer huge benefits in bigger real estate and lab design decisions.
“The nature of someone interested in science is someone who’s always interested in learning,” Larrabee said. “Keeping up with changes is part and parcel with someone who’s interested in the industry, frankly.”