The Critical Role of Incubators in Supporting Massachusetts’ Startup Community

Feb 08, 2018

Throughout 2018, we’ll be sharing the perspectives of MassBio staff on a variety of topics impacting the life sciences industry. In the following post, our Director of Communications Jennifer Nason sits down with Kendalle Burlin O’Connell, Vice President of Member Services and General Counsel, to discuss how incubators are impacting the industry in Massachusetts.

Jennifer: How do you define an incubator?

Kendalle: More and more entities have been popping up around Massachusetts, advertising inexpensive lab space for biotech startups looking to take their companies to the next level. These ‘incubators’ can take many different forms, some catering more to university graduates who need lab space to continue their research, and others to growing startups who are looking for guidance in commercializing their science.

When I think about the role of an incubator, lab space for rent is just one component. To me, true incubators are more like “accelerators.” Along with space and equipment, they offer tenants mentoring and business resources. It’s that extra level of support that will make a difference to companies who are fighting every day to advance their cutting-edge science.


Jennifer: How are incubators changing the way companies are started?

Kendalle: First and foremost, incubators are a great way to test the science and fail fast or get to some level of proof of concept without consuming significant amounts of cash. Before incubators, companies launched with headcount + bricks and mortar. Many ideas would fail and consume valuable capital and time.

Incubators also help ease the transition from academia to commercialization. Traditionally, researchers went directly from their university or even their garage to launching a business, which is a big leap to make on your own. The best incubators offer mentoring and facilitate the sharing of ideas to help researchers develop business sense along with scientific advancement so the journey to commercialization is a little less daunting.


Jennifer: How has the incubator landscape shifted in Massachusetts in the last few years?

Kendalle: Although some well-known incubators were established back in the 1990s, the last few years has seen an influx of incubators of various types.

More universities are going beyond tech transfer offices to provide their graduates and others in the life sciences industry a place to continue their research. And then there are private companies who are launching incubators to address the rising costs of real estate in Cambridge – offering little more than lab space and equipment. Now, we’re also seeing big pharma opening incubators to help fuel their own pipeline, along with creating excitement about the amazing innovation going on in our industry. JLABS, for example, is doing this well.

The incubators that add the most value clearly set themselves apart. LabCentral, established in 2013, upped the game for incubators, offering state-of-the-art facilities and a higher barrier to entry. Located in Cambridge, rent is certainly more costly than other parts of the state, but the proximity to Massachusetts’ renowned hospitals, universities, and big pharma and venture capital, is invaluable. Massachusetts Biomedical Initiatives (MBI) was formed nearly a decade before, but also offers unparalleled support for startups, and has the added benefit of being in Worcester, where rent is cheaper and more and more biotechs are opening shop. Incubators will continue to open up around the Commonwealth, but the true measure of success will be how many companies coming out of their facilitates can launch and sustain themselves.


Jennifer: What role do incubators play in supporting Massachusetts as the #1 life sciences cluster?

Kendalle: Incubators are incredibly important to the continued growth of the industry in Massachusetts, especially as large companies look more and more to fill their pipeline externally through licensing, partnerships and acquisition.

Rising costs of real estate and limited space, especially in Cambridge where early stage companies want to be so they access talent and ideas, is a major barrier for launching a company. Incubators are lowering this barrier to entry and are helping to expedite the time in which an idea can be commercialized by offering all of the support needed under one roof. Incubators can also be an aggregator of innovation, helping startups get noticed by potential buyers and investors.

I was talking with Kevin O’Sullivan of MBI earlier, and he really put the value of incubators in perspective. At MBI, 70% of the company founders are foreign born. They came to Massachusetts for school, and incubators are helping to keep them here – ultimately creating more jobs and benefitting patients and the larger industry. If a startup at MBI is 5 years old and operating independently, Kevin calls this success. With countless ideas tested and failing every day, it’s the true commercialization of science that will continue to feed our #1 life sciences cluster in the world.


If you’re an incubator and are interested in becoming a MassBio member, email Ben Bradford.

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