Atlanta’s Biotech Scene Prepares for New Heights

Atlanta

Pictured: Skyline of Atlanta iStock/Kruck20

A new project has capped off construction in Midtown Atlanta, providing physical real estate that experts say is sorely needed for the region’s growing biotech ecosystem, now home to more than 4,000 life science companies.

The Science Square project completed the first phase of construction last week. Built by real estate developer Trammell Crow and Georgia Advanced Technology Ventures, an affiliate of the Georgia Institute of Technology, the 13-story building offers more than 368,000 square feet of laboratory, clean room space and office space for life sciences companies. In its current iteration, Science Square is set to host several companies, including Abbott Laboratories, Vero Biotech and BioSpark Labs, a collaborative lab space, and the development has additional phases planned that could amount to 1.3 million square feet of biopharma activity.

Meanwhile, amid the forests of Gwinnett County, Ga., just east of Atlanta, an even bigger project is underway with the same goal: to support the area’s biotech ecosystem. Starting this summer, the Rowen Foundation will open roads, biking and hiking trials winding throughout a 2,000-acre plot that, over the next 30 years, will provide 22 million square feet of office and lab space for biopharma companies.

“I do think it will help spur development,” Katherine Lynch, a partner at Trammell Crow, told BioSpace of Science Square’s impact.  

Maria Thacker-Goethe, president and CEO of the nonprofit trade association Georgia Bio, agreed, adding that the projects couldn’t come at a better time. “We as a community have grown quite a bit, and I would argue, and I think many would agree, we’re at a real inflection point," she told BioSpace. There’s a lot more activity around life sciences nationally, and we’re getting a lot more interest in Atlanta from those we otherwise couldn’t get on the phone three years ago.”

Four Decades of Biotech in Atlanta

In 1988, the American Cancer Society opened its headquarters in Atlanta near the central HQ for the US Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Soon after, in 1989, the state biotech advocacy group Georgia Bio was founded, and Emory University and Georgia Tech began spinning out IP related to drug development. Since then, not only have Georgia Tech and Emory grown, but more research is being conducted at other local and nearby institutions such as Georgia State University, the University of Georgia and Kennesaw State University, Thacker-Goethe told BioSpace.

Another catalyst for growth of Atlanta’s biotech sector is the Georgia Research Alliance (GRA), which was founded in founded in 1990 to invest in academic research emerging from the state’s universities and help spin out new businesses. The alliance lists several life science and small therapeutics companies in its portfolio.

“If you look at any place that has become a biotech hotspot or hub, it’s because of the academic research, and that’s the nature of life science or biotech,” Mike Cassidy, executive director of Emory Innovations and a former GRA president. “It’s not coming out of industry, the way the tech stuff does; it is coming out of research labs and the universities.”

Cassidy said the Atlanta area is currently a “powerhouse” for federally funded research. According to National Institutes of Health data, Emory received more than $485 million from NIH in fiscal year 2023, while the University of Georgia, Georgia Tech and Georgia State collectively netted another $170 million.

Michelle Hall, vice president of marketing at local contract manufacturer Mikart, similarly credited “solid academic institutions” alongside “a supportive business ecosystem and access to capital” for the sector’s growth. “Overall, Atlanta’s biotech scene continues to thrive, driven by collaboration, innovation and a supportive ecosystem that positions the city as a prominent player in the biotech landscape,” Hall told BioSpace in an email. 

Science Square and Rowen Prepare for Continued Growth

Cassidy and Thacker-Goethe both highlighted the limited biotech infrastructure in Atlanta as a major challenge to the growing sector.

“We’re at a point where one of our biggest challenges—outside of, of course, investors like everyone’s dealing with right now across the country—we lack infrastructure for our industry . . . particularly for the companies that are spinning out of our universities that are not quite ready to have their [own] facilities,” Thacker-Goethe said.

Science Square is located on an 18-acre patch of land next to Georgia Tech’s campus in the Midtown district of Atlanta. According to Trammell Crow, the location has several amenities for tenants as well as an adjacent 14-story residental tower. Trammell Crow’s Lynch said that the goal is to “activate” this local area that has been isolated from the rest of Midtown. But she said that the Science Square will serve a role beyond just a lab and office location.

“We are not oversaturated from a lab infrastructure standpoint,” Lynch said. “We have four future phases that we can develop here at Science Square, so we’re very excited to be able to start designing phase two as we lease up this first phase.”

Lynch added in an email that the second phase will include around 200,000 square feet of additional lab and office space and he is hoping to start design this year. Future phases could take Science Square to its target of 1.3 million square feet.

Science Square will be the “nerve center” of the life science ecosystem in Atlanta and for the rest of the Peach State, said John Flavin, CEO and founder of life sciences venture capital firm Portal Innovations, which has a hand in the project. Portal Innovations itself will take up 33,000 square feet of space in the 13-story building.

“The Atlanta ecosystem has seen a lot of promises and hopes and visions, but this represents the first real brick-and-mortar testament to what’s real,” Flavin said. “There’s going to be real . . . investments and a real opportunity for an ecosystem to truly rise from.”

The Rowen Foundation, launched in 2020 to promote sustainable building design, is also looking to be a dominant player in the growing life sciences real estate market. Mason Ailstock, president of the Rowen Foundation, is also a former chief operating officer of Research Triangle Park in North Carolina. Ailstock told BioSpace that Rowen has drawn a lot from his time at Research Triangle Park in terms of the governance structure and how to forge a life science and technology R&D hub for Atlanta and Georgia.

“There was . . . an opportunity to create a large-scale piece of real estate that was really mission-driven in connecting our higher education institutions [and] that pipeline—amazing talent graduating from those institutions—directly to global companies in medicine, life science, the environment, agriculture and giving those companies a home to be able to locate in Georgia,” Ailstock said.

Once it is fully built out, the site will host “hundreds” of companies and over 80,000 jobs, according to Rowen. A spokesperson for the foundation told BioSpace via email the project’s current real estate entitlement will allow for the construction of more than 22 million square feet of office, lab and innovation space, along with retail, residential and other hospitality buildings. The first phase of the Rowen project includes hiking, walking and biking trials, which is under construction, with physical buildings to start construction in 2025 and 2026, Ailstock said. He also noted that Rowen is “open for business” and is actively speaking to companies to come to the location as well as engaging players in higher education.

Thacker-Goethe noted that Rowen will have an area that can house manufacturing space as well, which will be a boon for the scene. The Rowen project is a major “piece of the puzzle” for biotech in Georgia, she said.

Tyler Patchen is a staff writer at BioSpace. You can reach him at tyler.patchen@biospace.com. Follow him on LinkedIn.

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