Where to Build a Wet Lab: Examining the Stewartville Option

“How bad do we need wet lab space? Bad. When I started looking for a place to get [LAgen Laboratories] up, there just wasn’t anything,” explained Dr. Alan Marmorstein, Mayo Clinic Professor of Ophthalmology and Founder of the Rochester-based biomedical startup LAgen Labs.

Because there was no lab space available in Rochester when he was building LAgen, Dr. Marmorstein found his own facility in northwest Rochester. But then he not only had to raise capital for space, but he also needed funds for pricey laboratory equipment. He had to forgo some more “luxury” pieces of equipment due to startup budget constraints.

If the Rochester area continues to not have space for life science entrepreneurs, these people will leave, even if they would rather build in the city. It’s already starting to happen. A demand for lab space in Rochester is apparent, but the situation is a little more complicated than just providing real estate options.

“The quality of the space matters. Those that have secured wet lab space in the Rochester area are scattered throughout the city. [It] would be far better for those startup biobusinesses to share equipment and expertise in a local hub,” said Dr. Stephen Ekker, Mayo Clinic Professor and CoFounder of the InSciEdOut Foundation and Lifengine Technologies.

One solution may exist not in Rochester, but in Stewartville, Minnesota. As catheter manufacturer Bard Medical finalizes its leave from Stewartville, the company vacates three manufacturing and research facilities. The newest of these buildings, at 57,000 square foot facility, has been identified by Bard Medical real estate representative Avison Young, the City of Stewartville EDA, and architecture firm Widseth Smith Nolting (WSN) as prime space for a wet lab incubator.

“The biggest cost for somebody to create one of these kinds of facilities is always in the infrastructure equipment,” explained Brian Carlson, Business Development specialist at WSN. This infrastructure cost would include things like sidewalks, roadways, sewer, water, heating, cooling, and other mechanical equipment. Most of the infrastructure in the proposed wet lab facility is already in place; the building is estimated to have cost ~$17M to originally construct.

Drawing courtesy of Widseth Smith Nolting.

Drawing courtesy of Widseth Smith Nolting.

The potential Stewartville wet lab facility includes clean lab facilities, which were previously used for catheter manufacturing. The space is of flexible design, with a portion being divided into twelve to fifteen individual wet or dry labs, 750-1000 sq. ft. in area. These labs will be separated by semi-permanent walls, allowing the space to be configured to user demands. This flexibility allows walls to be removed when businesses need to expand, allowing the building to suit the needs of companies right now, while also giving them room to grow.

“Flexibility, that has to be a key to make this facility continue to be viable. Not only in 2017, but also in 2023. Because that flexibility is going to change as our businesses change, as the bioscience development process changes. It’s going to be an absolute must,” explained Carlson.

Drawing courtesy of Widseth Smith Nolting. 

Drawing courtesy of Widseth Smith Nolting. 

The Stewartville facility would also include private office space for grant writing, documentation, and other activities that need to take place outside of the laboratory. The building design will additionally feature community space where tenants can freely mingle with others working in the building to foster relationships and collaboration. The design plans also include conference rooms that can be outfitted with high tech communication capabilities for webinars and video conferences.

“Getting the bandwidth that we need here, not a problem. Getting the power requirements we need, not a problem. We’ve already got the power company online. And getting permits from the city to be able to do this, not a problem. The City of Stewartville is 100% onboard,” said Carlson.

“We are committing time, we’re committing materials. …We’re wanting this thing to keep moving, we want to get people down here to look at it,” said Jimmie-John King, Mayor of Stewartville.

Because most of the infrastructure is in place, this wet lab facility has a quick time to market and could potentially open as early as September 2017.

“So literally what we’re talking about is just putting walls up on the inside and putting the right kind of filtration and air flow into each of the individual labs that individual users may need,” explained Carlson.

 Building a facility like this on a greenfield site could take at least twenty-four months and $15-20M.

Funds are now being gathered for a feasibility study for the Stewartville site to estimate the cost to get the building operational and monthly fees for tenants. If funding for the study falls into place by January, the team could have these answers by April 1st and be welcoming tenants this fall.

“As Mayor of this town, I think it’s an outstanding idea and we’ve got a lot of support right now towards the feasibility study. We’ve got a lot of people committing money towards it and are ready to go from there,” said King.

“And the importance of having this scope of a facility and the speed to market of having it available to use within that time period meshes perfectly with the DMC plan,” explained Carlson.

The Stewartville site is by far the fastest to market option that we have for wet lab space in the Rochester area. But, is this the right location?

Call Taylor at (507) 424-3648.

Call Taylor at (507) 424-3648.

“Stewartville is far, far away,” said one Rochester entrepreneur.

Wet lab space could pull in researchers from all over southeastern Minnesota and even from Minneapolis/St. Paul. However, it’s highly likely that the first tenants will come from technology developed at the Mayo Clinic. And there’s a strong belief that proximity to Mayo is essential for potential wet lab tenants to keep their full-time positions at the Clinic.

There is at least one laboratory operating in wet-lab-like space in Mayo’s 41st Street building, which is five miles, or a ten-minute drive, away from the primary Mayo Clinic research buildings. In comparison, the Stewartville facility is ten miles, or a twenty-minute drive, away.

Wet lab space anywhere in the area could be a real asset to the 38,000 southeastern Minnesotans employed in the healthcare and science industries. This proposed facility would also fill a gaping hole left in Stewartville when Bard Medical pulled 185 jobs from the region.  But, will the region’s entrepreneurs take to a wet lab facility outside of the Rochester city limits?

“There’s absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t have a wet lab space to attract new companies and keep companies here, right now,” said Jamie Sundsbak, Program Manager at Collider Core.