Wet lab space has been a hot topic in the Rochester area recently. Wet labs not only provide a place for emerging bioscience entrepreneurs to work, they create jobs and retain talent locally. These facilities can play a vital role in maintaining the position of Rochester, and Minnesota, as global leaders in biomedical discovery and innovation.
But what exactly is a wet lab?
Wet labs are sort of like co-working spaces for scientists. We’ve been well educated on co-working spaces over the last few years with the opening of The Cube, the Mayo Clinic Business Accelerator, and most recently Collider Core. On the surface, co-working facilities are places that provide relatively cheap office space for a single entrepreneur starting a company, a small team, or even a person who is working remotely. Sometimes these spaces can have private offices. But more often they involve renting one desk of many in a relatively open space. You have little privacy, but you don’t have to worry about things like fixing the internet, facility repair, printing, and mailing. You get an actual business address that’s not your home. Some might even have snacks, drinks, and community booze.
But under the surface, co-working spaces offer so much more than some watered-down coffee. These places bring together many people under one roof and place minimal barriers between them, allowing a fluid sharing of thoughts and ideas. Co-working spaces can be areas that foster innovation in our communities.
However, a person who wants to start a bioscience company often needs a bit more than a functioning printer to make it a go. These are people developing vaccines, therapeutics, biologics, and medical devices. They need access to sterile, isolated spaces where they can experiment and build their products. They may require a place to safety handle chemical and biological materials. They may even need facilities for research animals.
The bioscience entrepreneur needs a lot of expensive equipment. They need things like centrifuges, fume hoods, subzero freezers, and microscopes. Purchasing even a few pieces of equipment is often well out of the budget of a new bioscience company and can quickly diminish capital before the business even gets started.
The same resource sharing concept that applies to co-working spaces also affects wet labs. Except now instead of just sharing a printer, these early stage businesses are sharing research equipment that they would not have access to otherwise. In a wet lab, researchers building companies can rent lab space and gain access to these shared resources to decrease their startup cost and drive innovation forward.
We have a rich history of innovation to uphold in our state. Minnesota is a powerhouse of bioscience and healthtech companies. The section of the state stretching from Duluth, through the Twin Cities, to Rochester, is even called “Medical Alley” due to the region’s strong biomedical roots. Minnesota has expertise in medical device, bioagriculture, animal science, bioinformatics, biologics, and biomaterials. Our state bioscience industry employs 48,000 people . Since 2012, 1,000 pharma and biotech jobs were added in Minnesota’s Medical Alley . This sector of the state also had $2.6B invested into its bioscience companies over the past six years. We are on track to have another record-breaking investment year .
We also love to file patents in Minnesota. Last year, Minnesota led the nation in the number of medical device patents filed per capita . We also had the 2nd highest number of bioscience-related patents in the US in 2015 .
It’s safe to say that a strong bioscience core is essential to our story. But to keep up those number of patents, to keep creating jobs, we need to keep innovating. Wet labs could play a major role in maintaining the rich history of bioscience innovation in Minnesota.
Wet labs do work. One example, the University Enterprise Laboratories (UEL) in St. Paul, has been around for over ten years and is now operating at close to full capacity. UEL is primarily used by early stage bioscience companies rolling out of the University of Minnesota. At least eight companies have graduated from the space. UEL is now undergoing a ~40,000 square foot expansion to keep up with the growing demand for lab space in the Twin Cities. This buildout is expected to create over 200 construction jobs and at least 125 bioscience positions.
Outside of UEL, there’s not much available space for the bioscience entrepreneur. Another facility, the Minnesota Nano Center, also exists in the Twin Cities. The Agricultural Utilization Research Institute (AURI) has some space available for entrepreneurs at their Crookston and Waseca facilities. There is a developing facility in Worthington that will likely be focused on animal science companies.
But with all the health and biomedical research being performed in Rochester, we have no wet lab space for our entrepreneurs and biobusinesses to expand, innovate, and grow. Without this space, there’s a chance that some of these companies will leave the Rochester area, if not the state.
But there is a shining light in this story. We have a very new facility right in Stewartville that could be converted into wet lab space as early as the third quarter of 2017.
Check back in over the next two weeks for a multi-part series exploring wet lab space in Minnesota- including the Stewartville facility- and discussing how these spaces can create jobs locally and keep talent in our state.
 Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development
 Medical Alley Association