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Rejuvenated Harlem Building Becomes a Business Incubator for Biotechnology

It is no secret that Harlem is changing. There is a new Red Lobster, a Joe’s Crab Shack, a DSW shoe store, and soon there will be a Whole Foods on 125th Street. But some of the most interesting changes are not so obvious.

Inside the Sweets Building, a renovated structure that was formerly a confectionery research lab, is Harlem Biospace, a new business incubator focused on biotechnology.

Situated on West 127th Street between Amsterdam and Convent Avenues, north of Columbia University and south of City College, Harlem Biospace is an effort to tap the scientific talent and entrepreneurial spirit of the two storied educational institutions.

For the neighborhood, the incubator represents a new front of economic investment in a place that for decades struggled to restore the economic and social vitality that defined Harlem in its heyday.

Founded by a Columbia biomedical engineering professor, Samuel K. Sia, and his wife, in partnership with the city’s Economic Development Corporation, Harlem Biospace opened last November.

Scientists and entrepreneurs rent lab space for projects.

Among those underway are efforts to develop antimicrobial polymers that would keep socks bacteria-free and to come up with new ways of testing for allergens.

Tyler Poore, 28, a chemistry graduate student at Columbia, is developing the antimicrobial polymer. Harlem Biospace has allowed him to remain in New York and capitalize on the connections he has made here.

“There are places like Boston or San Francisco that have cheap lab space, but we have all of our contacts here,” he said.

“Without Harlem Biospace I don’t think it would have been possible to do the work in New York City.”

Columbia is encouraging Harlem Biospace and other such projects.“It’s fantastic to have another strong center of entrepreneurship,” said Orin Herskowitz, executive director of Columbia Technology Ventures, the university arm that identifies funding to support research and create partnerships with the biotech world.

The university hopes to find ways to collaborate with Harlem Biospace, Mr. Herskowitz said.“Having a strong bioscience entrepreneurship community as close as possible to the university can only help the creation of this kind of start-up ecosystem in New York City,” he said.

The city’s Economic Development Corporation, which provided Harlem Biospace with $626,000, saw the venture as an opportunity to make the city more competitive with more established biotech hubs, like San Francisco and Boston, said Kyle Kimball, the organization’s president.

Harlem Biospace is one of 16 business incubators in the city. With all the change sweeping the neighborhood, Harlem is more than just part of the hub’s name, Mr. Sia said.

With all the change sweeping the neighborhood, Harlem is more than just part of the hub’s name, Mr. Sia said.

“West Harlem is one of the more exciting areas of the city that is being transformed,” Mr. Sia said. “It really fits in with what we’re trying to do.”

With a relatively low rent of $995 and with five subways lines nearby, the incubator is affordable and accessible to many prospective tenants, he said

Michael Tirgan, 55, rents space at Harlem Biospace, where he is trying to develop a new drug and better treatment for keloids, overgrowths of scar tissue that follow skin injuries.

“Harlem Biospace gives you access to a lot of infrastructure and gives you the ability to network with other like-minded people, and you can share your ideas,” Mr. Tirgan said.

“On my own this would have been very difficult to do,” Mr. Tirgan said.

Mr. Sia knows of the struggles and risks many of the incubator’s tenants are facing as they try to build something from the ground up.

He had a start-up of his own, a company that developed a blood testing device. In 2012, Mr. Sia sold the company, Claros Diagnostics, for $49 million.

“By giving people the infrastructure and the space to do the work, we can give the start-ups in New York as good a chance as they can have to succeed,” Mr. Sia said.

With new businesses and new people flocking to Harlem, Mr. Sia said he wanted to make sure his venture was giving back to the community.

He and his wife, Christine Kovich, have started an after-school program called Hypothekids.

The program brings unconventional science education to the students at Teachers College Community School, a public school on Morningside Avenue.

“We have the most promising innovation here and we’re doing it in Harlem,” said Mr. Sia, who said he wanted to take advantage of the science innovation and “introduce it to the community, especially young kids.”

Mar 23, 2014

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