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Sterling Bay's New Head Of Life Sciences On Cultivating Diverse Talent, Building A New Cluster

Chicago-based developer Sterling Bay is expanding its life sciences efforts amid a nationwide industry upswing and has tapped a groundbreaking leader to head its push.

Suzet McKinney touts an impressive résumé in the public sector, tackling health care system logistics last year in Illinois after leading past national pandemic and international disaster responses. Sterling Bay hired McKinney, a Black woman, in January, making her the rare woman and person of color in the rapidly growing life sciences sector of commercial real estate.

Sterling Bay Principal and Director of Life Sciences Suzet McKinney, speaking at a 2019 City Club of Chicago event.

McKinney will guide her hometown firm into the red-hot life sciences asset class and aim to retain homegrown talent in Chicago, which she said can become the next great cluster, but has lagged behind and lost talent to the San Francisco Bay Area and Boston and Cambridge.

Sterling Bay’s Lincoln Yards, a 55-acre, $5B complex, will debut with a 300K SF life sciences building, its first step in attempting to capture a piece of the life sciences pie in the Midwest.

The University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health alumna recently spoke with Bisnow about her new role, why Chicago can become a life sciences cluster, and her own status as a role model for women and people of color aspiring to become life sciences leaders.

Bisnow: You were brought on amid the coronavirus pandemic, which added fuel to the already booming life sciences industry. Why do you think the industry has kept up its momentum?

McKinney: The life sciences sector really came into sharp focus during the coronavirus pandemic due to the rush to develop testing mechanisms, therapeutics and then of course vaccines to address the pandemic. I will say that the boom was already there, and I believe that it would have continued even without the pandemic. I think the pandemic really catapulted the life sciences into a stratosphere that we hadn’t quite seen yet. 

Bisnow: What specifically will drive industry growth?

McKinney: I expect life sciences to continue to grow in ways that align with trends in health care, trends in disease patterns, and now that we’ve seen the largest pandemic in over 100 years, growth in the manner of looking at other emerging or reemerging infectious disease aspects. I think research and development will be critically important.

I was speaking on a panel, and a number of the audience members were really concerned with the speed at which the coronavirus vaccine was developed. There were a lot of questions about the mRNA mechanism, and that is a clear example of a breakthrough technology in vaccine development that had been researched for a number of years prior to being used to develop the COVID-19 vaccine. I think research and development is going to be key, but other sectors such as manufacturing and tech innovation are strong contributors.

A rendering of Sterling Bay's Lincoln Yards project in Chicago.

Bisnow: The industry’s clusters sit in California’s Bay Area, San Diego and Boston. How can Sterling Bay lead an emergence of life sciences in the Midwest?

McKinney: Perhaps we are reaching a point where places like the Midwest, but especially a city like Chicago, is becoming ripe for life sciences hubs here. That is, primarily due to the presence of all of the world-class health care institutions that we have here in Chicago, we have a number of the country’s leading academic medical centers, top medical schools, but also, in very close proximity to the city, a number of key life sciences businesses, a biopharmaceutical arena, a data analytics arena.

I also think the growth and expansion of life sciences hubs in places like Chicago and in the Midwest offers entrepreneurs and companies a much more affordable way of life. The cost of living in the Midwest is not the lowest, but it is certainly much lower than the coasts. The institutions really have a strong push for not just attracting new talent to the area but maintaining the talent that’s being turned out of the universities here.

I think Chicago is a prime location for the emergence of a new life sciences hub and a new innovation hub, especially the Lincoln Yards development that Sterling Bay is in the process of developing now. Our company’s investment in Lincoln Yards, I believe, will serve as a draw for continued life sciences investment here in Chicago, and would be a great location for those who are interested.

Bisnow: You are the rare woman of color in a life sciences leadership position. How do you feel as a groundbreaker in the industry that shows the same lack of diverse leaders as the rest of the commercial real estate landscape?

McKinney: I am so proud, not just to be here at Sterling Bay, but to be a woman of color in a leadership role. One of the things that is very important to me is the cultivation of new talent, but I strongly believe young people cannot be what they cannot see. 

I think my presence here at Sterling Bay, as a leader who is also a woman of color sends an example and sends a message to other young women, that are young women of color, that they can also aspire to and ascend to leadership roles in settings that even in prior years have been predominantly a homogeneous gender or race. I also believe diversity pays off in a number of ways. I am proud to be a part of a company that recognizes that and sought me out for that purpose. It feels great to be here.

Col. Aaron Reisinger, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and Suzet McKinney at work with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last year.

Bisnow: What is Sterling Bay doing to aid efforts to increase diversity?

McKinney: Sterling Bay is launching a number of initiatives and activities that are designed to attract diversity, and so, bringing me on board as a part of the leadership team is one example, but another example is the development of our Prysm Institute. That is specifically designed for entrepreneurs of color, as well as female entrepreneurs. I think that speaks to Sterling Bay’s recognition.

Bisnow: You spoke earlier about Chicago becoming a key life sciences player because it retains locally produced STEM talent. Who is Sterling Bay looking to attract?

McKinney: We recognize that here in Chicago as well as in other cities, there are young people who may not have access to the Harvard and MITs of the world or even the University of Chicagos of the world. Many of these young people are just as talented, and we want to leverage our life sciences development to create ecosystems all across this country that attract students from the top schools in the country, but also attract students from some lesser-known schools. I think that just ties back to our conversation a moment ago, identifying and cultivating new talent, and I personally believe that identifying and cultivating new talent is equally as important as harvesting talent in the world.

Bisnow: How did the coronavirus pandemic accelerate interest in future industry growth? Is the industry ripe for a "Dr. Fauci Effect" like we saw with medical schools getting an uptick in applications last year?

McKinney: I certainly hope to see a flood of people interested in the STEM field, but interested in the life sciences where they can have the opportunity to contribute to the research and development of new medical interventions and therapeutics to treat some of the world’s most pressing health care issues and challenges. It is not lost on me that this pandemic highlighted some of the extreme disparities that we see across subgroups of our populations, several ethnic groups, socioeconomic groups. 

I also think, when we talk about leaders in science and leaders in health care and young people being able to look up to those leaders, just as so many of us look up to Dr. Fauci, to see an African American woman leading one of the teams that helped develop the COVID-19 vaccine, must give young African American girls a greater interest in science, medicine and other careers.

Bisnow: How does it feel to be a role model for the young and diverse field?

McKinney: It gives me great pride to be a woman of color as part of the leadership team. I just hope the work I do here at Sterling Bay will serve as an example for young people to not just aspire to move into the life sciences field, or more broadly, the STEM career, but it will also encourage them to aspire to leadership roles. I am just so proud to be a part of a company that is doing more than just talking diversity, but is backing that up with their actions.

Related Topics: Sterling Bay, Suzet McKinney