Philadelphia Bursting at the Seams as Biopharma Hub Status Grows

As the city rapidly develops as a biopharma hub, wet lab space is rapidly dwindling.

Philadelphia, also known as Cellicon Valley, has become a lynchpin hub for cell and gene therapy in the United States. As one of the fastest-growing hubs in the country, there is a growing demand for new lab space to accommodate merging and expanding companies.

As the city rapidly develops as a biopharma hub, wet lab space is swiftly dwindling. Tim Conrey, senior vice president and regional director at Scheer Partners, told BioSpace that the available space in Philadelphia is probably fallen to 3% due to that increased demand. “The market (in Philadelphia) is really exploding,” he said.

Conrey pointed to the ongoing success of Spark Therapeutics, its approved gene therapy for a rare genetic form of blindness, Luxturna, and its hemophilia programs as the ‘spark’ for the rapid expansion in the city. He said there is a demand for about 3 million square feet in the city in order to accommodate an estimated 5,000 new jobs expected in the Philadelphia cell and gene therapy market over the next five years.

When life sciences companies expand, Conrey noted they typically require tens of thousands of square feet of space to meet their needs. As an example, he said that one of Scheer’s clients, Imvax, required a 15,000 square foot expansion two years ago and are already looking for an additional 30,000 square feet. At this rate of growth, Conrey predicted the company will need even more space over the next few years.

That type of need is not uncommon in Philadelphia. Over the past year, there have been significant moves by companies to secure new space across the city and outlying region to meet that growing demand. Iovance expanded into a 136,000 square foot facility in the Philadelphia Navy Yard for commercial and clinical production of autologous TIL products.

Last year, in the midst of a global pandemic, Amicus Therapeutics opened its Global Research and Gene Therapy Center of Excellence as part of its collaboration with the University of Pennsylvania. The new facility, which includes office and lab space, encompasses 75,000 square feet on the top three floors of a new building located on Market Street in Philadelphia. The site expands Amicus’ capabilities to develop its pipeline of therapeutics for lysosomal storage disorders and rare diseases that include Rett Syndrome, Angelman Syndrome and other muscular dystrophies.

In addition to those companies, the University of Pennsylvania Gene Therapy Program became an anchor tenant at Discovery Labs, a suburban Philadelphia ecosystem of more than 7 million square feet formed for the discovery, development and delivery of life-saving treatments. UPenn’s program, helmed by famed gene therapy pioneer Jim Wilson, will be able to take advantage of the available space at Discovery Labs to expand its programs aimed at developing genetic medicines for rare and orphan diseases, as well as acquired and pandemic infectious diseases. The program gained space for vector operations, including two dedicated floors for the expanded Penn Vector Core, a full-service facility that produces viral-based vectors for gene transfer for researchers both within and outside of the university.

While new constructions are important to meet those growing demands, Lisa Berger Baskin, senior vice president of Scheer Partners, said another way to meet the need for wet lab and office space is to rehabilitate existing structures. While many of Scheer’s clients are looking for new construction to meet their needs, Baskin said that’s not always feasible for many reasons, including timing and a general lack of space. New builds can take on average about four years from start to completion, Baskin said. She noted that the need is to get into a building quickly so companies can get up and going in the market, and that means redevelopment.

In Philadelphia, there have been two significant redevelopment projects aimed at the life sciences. Scheer was part of the redevelopment of the famed Curtis Building in the heart of Center City Philadelphia. Built in the early 20th century, the Curtis building was named for Curtis Publishing, the company responsible for The Saturday Evening Post and Ladies Home Journal. Now, the building is home to multiple life sciences companies, including Aro Biotherapeutics, Imvax and Vivodyne.

Another ongoing renovation project is the redevelopment of the vacant Budd Plant. Also located in Center City, the Budd Plant was once home to a metal fabrication company for the automobile industry. Now, it will become the home for life sciences companies. When renovations are complete, the Budd will include 300,000 square feet of cGMP drug manufacturing space along with 150,000 square feet of lab and office space.

Although renovating an existing building can provide space for a company much more quickly than a new build, Conrey said there are some challenges, particularly when it comes to vibration sensitivity. Test animals used in research, as well as some of the equipment used in manufacturing, are sensitive to external vibrations. Conrey said other challenges facing renovations include floor loading capabilities and floor-to-floor heights.

As the market continues to grow in Philadelphia and the need for space increases, Conrey and Baskin anticipate seeing the potential for real estate development firms to initiate development of new, speculative life sciences campuses in order to meet the growing needs of the city’s ecosystem.

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