Alex Philippidis Senior News Editor Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News
Aim is to convert plethora of research activities into marketable opportunities.
New York City likes to think of itself as the center of the universe for everything. That’s almost true when it comes to science and technology education and research; the city’s reputation is much overstated when it comes to its effort to translate all of that activity into a community of successful businesses based on biotech and other science and technology fields.
The city’s $1.3 billion in NIH-funded research places it second to the Boston region, a respectable showing, as is its concentration of research universities focused on science and engineering. Also respectable is Columbia University’s fifth-place standing among 149 universities in the number of startups launched in FY 2009, according to the Association of University Technology Managers’ (AUTM’s) U.S. Licensing Activity Survey Summary.
Columbia’s 13 startups account for most of the 20 generated by NYC schools on AUTM’s list: New York University had five; Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Yeshiva University, had two. By comparison, the University of California (UC) alone had 47, followed by the University of Texas system (22), the University of Utah (19), and MIT and CalTech (18 each).
Intent on bridging the gap between tech research and commercialization, Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration wants to develop a new research campus for applied sciences and engineering. The city received 18 “expressions of interest” from 27 institutions worldwide, some responding individually and the rest through consortia. The city has said it will issue a formal request for proposals to build the applied sciences campus sometime this summer, then choose from among those proposals by the end of this year.
“The day when a new campus opens its doors is still far down the road, but the quality of the initial responses is an incredibly promising sign that it can and will become a reality,” Bloomberg noted. The mayor envisions a campus that would foster research and commercialization initiatives for engineering, computer science, materials science, nanotechnologies, and environmental science.
“Respondents demonstrate the commercialization potential of research associated with the mix of sciences proposed,” the city stated in its request for expressions of interest. “Proposals with an applied biotech focus are of less interest but will also be considered.”
Life Science Focus Needed
According to the New York State Department of Education, New York City colleges and universities conferred 5,288 science and engineering degrees in the 2008–09 academic year, the most recent year for which figures were available. Interestingly, the number of engineering degrees, 2,471, outnumbered biological and biomedical degrees, 2,074. Another 743 degrees were conferred in physical science majors such as chemistry and physics.
This discrepancy would further suggest that New York City could use a life science-focused campus at least as much, if not even more so, than an engineering-focused applied sciences campus. Recall that the invisibility of city schools on national rankings was a key reason cited by Mayor Bloomberg for pursuing the science-tech campus.
David Hochman, a consultant in technology-based economic development, told GEN that some life science fields still fit the city’s parameters. “Biomedical engineering is an area of high potential. And yes, other convergent disciplines also offer high potential: biomaterials, bioinformatics, and medical informatics (an area in which we have inexplicably underperformed our potential). All these are important targets if one starts from the biomedical side and works toward engineering,” Hochman explained.
Ongoing Initiatives from City Schools
New York’s biomedical activity is more formidable than its engineering activity, which has historically trailed the nation’s best schools. That’s borne out by U.S. News’ 2011 rankings of U.S. colleges and universities. Two New York City universities are among top-10 schools for neurobiology: Columbia (ranked seventh) and Rockefeller (tied for 10th). However, no city institutions are top-10 in engineering, where MIT ranks first, followed by Stanford University and UC Berkeley.
Hochman said the city’s applied sciences campus plan reflected the city’s desire to boost engineering R&D significantly, do so cheaply, and do so at one of its suggested sites: the Navy Hospital Campus at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the Goldwater Hospital Campus on Roosevelt Island, or the Farm Colony on Staten Island.
“You just can’t easily do at once all three things that the city has articulated as its goals,” added Hochman.
As he notes correctly, in soliciting interest from schools around the world, New York has invited competition with its own schools’ efforts to boost science and technology, with the city ready to chip in as much as $100 million to the winner. “Applied intelligently as keystone contributions to leverage major philanthropic gifts and federal awards, that amount would buy an awful lot of progress and attitude adjustment, if required, at existing institutions,” Hochman said.
New York does, however, risk alienating three city-based schools that have spent recent years pursuing their own plans for expanded science and tech programs. Columbia University opened its Northwest Corner science and engineering building in December; it houses 21 biology, chemistry, physics, and engineering labs as well as a science library. Columbia also plans to establish the Jerome L. Greene Science Center at the Manhattanville campus it has begun developing in Manhattan’s West Harlem section. The center will house the university’s Mind, Brain and Behavior initiative.
City University of New York (CUNY) is spending up to $2 billion for a “Decade of Science” initiative for facilities at some campuses. It is also constructing an Advanced Science Research Center focusing on neuroscience and structural biology, among five key areas. Finally, two researchers in New York University’s Polytechnic Institute recently published results of promising research into a hybrid gene therapy that combines the lipid-based reagent FuGENE HD with a modified version of the cell permeating peptide HIV-1 Tat.
“In truth, we are not at a bad starting point if our main goal is to ‘move the needle’ on the engineering R&D enterprise, as the city has said. It won’t be cheap, but the city doesn’t have to pay the full costs. It just has to help on the margins or at least stay out of the way,” Hochman noted.
Expression of Interest from NY
Columbia has joined with CUNY to express interest in creating a 1,200-student, 80-faculty member applied sciences facility at the Manhattanville campus—“a new collaboration involving translational research on information,” according to the university.
“We know that modern society’s unprecedented accumulation of information holds the opportunity not only to drive innovation and economic development but also to generate commercial solutions to the challenges of the 21st century in areas such as infrastructure, health, sustainability, media, and finance,” Columbia spokesman Robert Hornsby told GEN. He said the new campus would continue a tradition of collaborations with local institutions, which includes the New York Structural Biology Center, a 10-institution consortium.
But the applied science and research campus initiative has also spawned some risk-hedging by Columbia, CUNY, and NYU, as all three have signed on to more than one expression of interest. Columbia joined with CUNY on one submission, while CUNY also teamed up on a second response with NYU, Carnegie-Mellon, IBM, and the University of Toronto to build an urban sciences facility for 300 students and 100 researchers in Brooklyn or Roosevelt Island.
NYU and Columbia University Medical Center are two of seven institutions that comprise The New York Genome Center, along with Albert Einstein College of Medicine, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, Mount Sinai School of Medicine, and one out-of-town institution—The Jackson Laboratory at Bar Harbor, ME, which is best known for its genetic research on mice.
“We would be active participants in all aspects of the center, for example, large-scale collaborative sequencing projects, human as well as model organism, data analysis and mining, bioinformatics training, and new technology development,” Robert E Braun, Ph.D., professor/associate director/chair of research at Jackson Lab, told GEN. “Importantly, Jackson would be heavily engaged in creating mouse models of human disease alleles for functional analysis.”
A fourth academic institution with plans to grow its technology programs, New York Institute of Technology, considered a submission to the city, but did not do so. NYIT’s prospective partner in developing an applied sciences campus, Manhattan College, pulled out of the partnership too late for the institute to find a replacement, Nada Anid, Ph.D., dean of NYIT’s 1,800-student School of Engineering and Computing Sciences, told GEN.
Dr. Anid said NYIT is planning to develop a new master’s program in bioinformatics and new programs in biomechanics and biofuels, among several technology program expansions that would include telemedicine, engineering, and computer sciences. The institute wants to build a technology campus on Long Island, where it has a campus in Old Westbury, but with a presence at its Manhattan campus near Columbus Circle.
All are aimed at encouraging virtual collaborations among students and faculty across NYIT’s campuses, as well as greater tech commercialization: “We all want a new Google to start here. We all want the great things that California and Boston have in New York.”
Out of State Applicants
Among out-of-town schools, Stanford University has proposed starting construction on the campus’ first phase in 2013, to focus on information technology, electrical engineering, computer science, and possibly management science and engineering. The university would enroll 440 master’s and Ph.D. students by the fall of 2015. Over 25 years, Stanford envisions as many as 2,200 graduate students and 100 faculty members possibly based in New York City, on 10 acres within Roosevelt Island.
“I can see broadening the base of subjects offered to include green technology, biomedical engineering, new media, financial mathematics, and urban studies, just to name a few,” Stanford president, John L. Hennessy, Ph.D., stated.
Last week, a Stanford spokeswoman Lisa Lapin told GEN that the university’s academic plans have not developed beyond the initial concept. “While bioengineering may eventually be possible in New York City, our initial intention and emphasis is on computer science and information technology. All programs in New York City would be considered extensions of the programs offered on the home campus, with very close ties to our school of engineering.”
Stanford is one of 13 institutions or consortia based outside the New York area to respond. That list includes two upstate New York schools, Cornell University and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and four based outside the Empire State—Stanford, Carnegie Mellon University (partnering with Brooklyn-based Steiner Studios), the University of Chicago, and Purdue University.
“While Purdue has strengths in the biotechnology arena and significant collaboration with Indiana University and IUPUI, including the Indiana Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute, the applied sciences facility and campus in NYC is necessarily focused in other directions,” Richard Buckius, Ph.D., Purdue’s vp for research, told GEN. “Purdue University is proposing phased introductions of research and education programs that will leverage our proven leadership in areas of applied engineering and pioneering cyberinfrastructure.”
New Jersey’s Stevens Institute of Technology envisions a Stevens Innovation and Entrepreneurship Campus (SIEC). It would house the Graduate School of Applied Science, Engineering and Technology Management (ASET), dedicated to highly interdisciplinary and market-relevant research and education; the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, where ASET research would be prototyped and associated business models tested to prove real-market viability; Satellite Technology Enterprises, where startup companies working with ASET innovations will gain access to SIEC resources and support; and mixed-use residential and commercial space for faculty and students that would provide revenue for the SIEC. Details have not been decided.
Over time, Stevens hopes to triple its current “45 to 50” students and faculty carrying out research and study in those programs, George P. Korfiatis, Ph.D., Stevens interim president and provost, told GEN: “Creating the appropriate environment where the concepts of academic entrepreneurship and innovation can flourish is the target here.”
Proximity to New York’s financial community is one key reason why the city is an attractive location for Stevens. “The money flows there. The money deals are there. It’s a great location to have an endeavor like that. Plus it can become a global magnet for a lot more expansion for academic innovation,” Dr. Korfiatis added.
Seven responses came from overseas: Finland’s Abo Akadmi University; India’s Amity University and Indian Institute of Technology; Israel’s Technion-Israel Institute of Technology; the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology; Switzerland’s Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne; and the U.K.’s University of Warwick.
While it is true the campus envisioned by the city would correct a longstanding weakness in engineering, there’s no reason it shouldn’t also embrace commercializing technologies in other emerging areas of science, from nascent artificial intelligence to more established molecular and structural biology. If anything, those areas play more to New York’s long-time strengths in biomedical research and education, forming a more solid foundation for the translation effort the campus endeavors to anchor.
Alex Philippidis is senior news editor at Genetic Engineering & Biotechnology News.