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The True Boom For Philly's Life Sciences Industry Won't Be Until Late 2022

Gene and cell therapy has quickly become Philadelphia’s signature industry, but the next year will play a huge role in determining how the emergent scientific field can shape the future of the city and region.

A rendering of the Center for Breakthrough Medicines, a cell and gene therapy manufacturing facility at The Discovery Labs in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania

Only a small portion of vacant office space or other uses could be reasonably converted to life sciences usage, meaning the next availability of any real size to come online will be in late 2022, panelists at Bisnow’s Philly Life Sciences Update digital summit on Wednesday. Until then, perhaps the most important thing that business leaders, city officials or anyone invested in the success of the industry can do is create the conditions for that success to be sustainable and equitable.

“We’re so blessed to be in a majority-minority city in Philadelphia, where we have an opportunity to take people that may have been disintermediated by another industry and retrain them to serve the life sciences industry,” The Discovery Labs Senior Managing Director Audrey Greenberg said. “That could be a huge factor in improving diversity and equity.”

There doesn’t seem to be any indication that ideas and startups coming out of Philadelphia’s research institutions will dry up, considering that the city brings in the most money of any U.S. market in grants for cell and gene therapy from the National Institutes of Health and the third-most in venture capital, behind only San Francisco and Boston, Ventas Senior Investment Officer Tim Sanders said. President Joe Biden’s budget includes an expansion of financing for the NIH as well.

The University of Pennsylvania has been perhaps the biggest driving force behind the creation of new cell and gene therapy companies, and to that end it delivered a 65K SF expansion to its Pennovation incubation center earlier this year, Colliers Executive Vice President Joseph Fetterman said. Brandywine Realty Trust could have its B Labs incubator space up and running at its Cira Centre office building by the end of the year as well. 

Just a few of the startups that have been coming out of incubator spaces have to hit on their products in order for a sizable amount of real estate demand to sprout from the industry, to say nothing of the potential for out-of-market companies to move in. But in order for the cell and gene therapy industry to produce revenue-generating companies that can sustain their own success, Philly needs more manufacturing capacity in terms of both physical space and labor force.

Jaros, Baum & Bolles Managing Partner Walter Mehl and MLP Ventures founder and CEO Brian O'Neill

The Discovery Labs, the sprawling life sciences campus that is partially operational while still under development, is launching a program to introduce a curriculum relevant to the life sciences industry to schools at multiple levels across the region, said MLP Ventures founder and CEO Brian O’Neill, whose company owns Discovery Labs.

“We’re going into inner city schools, rural schools and community colleges and training people for these jobs. And the beautiful thing about these jobs is that they’re for life,” O’Neill said. “Demand for life sciences and healthcare isn't going anywhere; it’s the most like manufacturing in the 1940s and 1950s, where you can anticipate working for one company for life.”

Discovery Labs isn’t alone in trying to include disadvantaged groups and areas of the Philly region in the labor pipeline for both research and manufacturing jobs, plenty of which don’t require college degrees, Sanders said. That comes not just in the form of educating the younger generation, but bringing into the fold those laid off in other industries that might have translatable skills.

“This is the new age of industrialization and manufacturing, so pulling people who were disintermediated by other industries being taken over by technology will be key,” O’Neill said.

MLP Ventures purchased the Philadelphia Inquirer printing plant down the street from the Discovery Labs campus this February to expand the campus further, and O’Neill said that the company will look to bring in and retrain some of the 500 or so workers laid off when the facility closed this month

“If you can run a printing press, I guarantee you can work in a lab,” O’Neill said. “But you need to have that transformational training, and we’re building that capability as we speak.”

Clockwise from top left: Colliers' Joseph Fetterman, KSS Architects' Mayva Donnon, Turner Construction's Gregory Smith, The Discovery Labs' Audrey Greenberg and Ventas' Tim Sanders

O’Neill added that MLP Ventures is far from finished acquiring property around the former GlaxoSmithKline campus that it purchased to kick off its Discovery Labs project. Several years down the line, the full build-out of the complex could reach 10M SF, O’Neill said.

When more space at the Discovery Labs comes online and the next phases of uCity Square, Schuylkill Yards and the Philadelphia Navy Yard deliver in the next 18 to 24 months, the wheels need to be in motion for the manufacturing capability to meet whatever companies expand or move into those buildings. The Discovery Labs is working on its own current Good Manufacturing Practices-certified facility, but finding places closer to the disadvantaged parts of Philadelphia would be a powerful tool for equity and broader participation in Philly’s growth industry.

“I think Philadelphia has a unique opportunity to do this in terms of geography as well as population,” KSS Architects partner Mayva Donnon said. “Adding manufacturing in the urban environment provides an opportunity to activate areas around the edge of the city. That has a lot to do with the Navy Yard, but it also is an interesting opportunity at the former PES refinery site.”

The former refinery neighbors a number of historically Black neighborhoods and will have an abundance of potential space, but there are areas spread out across the city with industrial histories, cheaper land and the potential to make a dramatic social impact. Unlike with lab space, where proximity to academic institutions and local amenities are seen as key factors in attracting talent, cGMP facilities don’t have to rub shoulders with shiny new developments, LucasPye Bio founder and CEO Tia Lyles-Williams said.

“One of the misconceptions is that you have to be at this glamorous place,” Lyles-Williams said. “When it comes to manufacturing, most companies don’t care what the environment looks like as much as getting the permits and the variances and bringing the workers in.”