In 2019, as John Pattison and Ian Johnson prepared to leave their San Francisco jobs to launch their own company producing meat from cell cultures, the big question was where. They weighed a number of cities before settling on a choice some might find surprising: Madison, Wisconsin.  The deciding factor? A new co-working laboratory called Forward BIOLABS that would substantially reduce the company’s startup costs. At the shared facility, Pattison and Johnson could pay lower rent, avoid a lengthy lease and forgo purchasing costly equipment. Pattison was familiar with the model, as such co-working labs, whether private or nonprofit, are common on the coasts. But in other parts of the country, even as co-working office spaces have proliferated, such labs remain rare. Pattison’s company, Cultured Decadence, which uses cell culture and tissue engineering technologies to create animal products like lobster, moved into the shared Madison space in April 2020.

“Had Forward BIOLABS or a facility like Forward BIOLABS not been available at that time, I don’t think we would have considered coming here,” Pattison said. “I would say it was pretty instrumental.”

Today, Cultured Decadence is one of 16 companies renting space on a month-to-month basis at the 10,000-square-foot nonprofit facility at University Research Park. Members, working on everything from gene therapy to food science to medical devices, can take advantage of shared equipment like incubators, fluorescence microscopes and osmometers, as well as key safety infrastructure like fume hoods and biosafety cabinets. “The beauty of it is no company needs this equipment 24/7 by any stretch of the imagination,” said Forward BIOLABS co-founder and CEO Jessica Martin Eckerly. “Sometimes they need a $35,000 piece of equipment three times, but it’s critical to meeting their milestones, to gathering the data they need to de-risk the technology and move forward.” Forward BIOLABS staff also clean and maintain the equipment, fixing it when it breaks, so tenants don’t have to. “It enables them to come in and just do the work they need to do without effort in operating the lab itself,” Eckerly said.

Through those shared services, Forward BIOLABS helps companies get to work faster and stretch their limited funds farther. Eckerly estimates that a biohealth company looking to get started on its own would need six to nine months just to open its lab. While most member companies rent one or more lab benches ($1750 per month for the first bench, and $1000 for each additional bench), the facility also offers discounted memberships ($150 to $300 per month) for those looking to rent only an office while their fundraising or writing grants, before beginning lab research. It can be advantageous, Eckerly said, to just be around other entrepreneurs who are going through the same development cycles, regulations and approval processes. “There’s much less sense of feeling like they’re on an island when they’re part of a specific community,” Eckerly said. Businesses, which can add additional benches as they grow, typically spend six months to a year in the shared facility before they outgrow the space and choose to rent their own. So far, seven companies have graduated from the space, including therapeutics company Empirico Inc., which moved out after receiving $17 million in funding. But many don’t travel far: Several former tenants remain headquartered in the Madison area.

The lab is part of a larger effort to make Wisconsin’s biohealth sector more competitive so that startups don’t leave the Midwest for San Francisco or Boston. It, along with biohealth industry advocacy group BioForward and UW-Madison’s Forward BIO Institute, are part of the Forward Bio Initiative, which received $750,000 from the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation and $200,000 from the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation. “Having a lab ready-made is so attractive, you don’t want people to leave for that. This allows talent, startups and CEOs to stay here and create their company here,” Eckerly said. “We’re connected with the university. We’re connected with our industry group. It’s a really broad set of supporters working on helping those startups be successful,” Eckerly said.

Birth of BIOLABS

Forward BIOLABS grew out of a project at stem cell research institute WiCell where Eckerly used to work. In 2015, Su-Chun Zhang, a University of Wisconsin-Madison neuroscience professor and founding member of WiCell, had just founded his own company, BrainXell, to commercialize a proprietary process he’d developed for turning stem cells into nerve cells. To avoid conflicts of interest, he’d need a separate lab space for his work with the company. He learned WiCell had extra lab space, and soon he was setting up shop.

“When you start a company, every penny is precious,” Zhang said. Between licensing costs, legal fees and hiring, “a million dollars goes away just like that. With that help, you can delay the cost, simply by paying the rent. It helps tremendously. And that’s how we got off the ground quite rapidly.”

Thanks to the low overhead, BrainXell, which produces nerve cells to sell to drug companies looking to test drugs, turned a profit just one year in, years sooner than Zhang had anticipated. Soon, the company was seeing so much demand for its nerve cells that it needed a larger space. By that time, the BrainXell had revenue, as well as funding from the National Institutes of Health. “We were financially in much better shape,” Zhang said. Today, the company rents a whole floor at University Research Park, where it employs about 15 people and has many cell incubators spread throughout its space. has also begun exploring cell therapy, looking for ways that the nerve cells it produces could be used to treat neurological disorders like Parkinson’s disease.

Among the current generation of tenants is Faraz Choudhury, a former UW-Madison postdoctoral researcher who learned about Forward BIOLABS through the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, where he was patenting a method for analyzing biomolecules using plasma technology. The process could speed up the drug discovery process by shortening the analysis time from as long as a year to just two to three weeks. Choudhury’s company, Immuto Scientific, currently consists of just four people. Without the shared facility, he said, he’d likely have rented a lab elsewhere in University Research Park. “The cost of that would be a lot higher to get it set up, to buy all the equipment, and then we would also probably have to sign a longer term lease,” Choudhury said. “That would require us to raise additional funding and maybe slow us down quite a bit as well.”

Forward of the future

About two years after moving into its current space, Forward BIOLABS has seen high demand, Eckerly said, but has been able to accommodate every company that was a good fit. “We’re very much like a honeybee hive. At any given moment, there are startups on their way in, there are startups actively working towards their milestones and growing, and there’s startups in the planning phases of graduation.” Even the coronavirus pandemic hasn’t halted the research, which was exempted from stay-at-home orders. If anything, she said, she’s seen interest in the space grow during the pandemic. “If we’d closed the lab, (tenants would be) spending invested dollars on payroll without the ability to move their science forward,” Eckerley said, so staff implemented new safety protocols and staggered schedules. Today, Zhang is glad to see that the project that gave his business a boost is now a fully-formed incubator home to more than a dozen companies like his.

“It alleviates the initial pain for those startups,” Zhang said. And the state he calls home stands to gain, too, he said. “I’d love to see how the state can develop much more vibrantly, particularly in technology sectors.”

Meanwhile, John Pattison of Cultured Decadence hasn’t been disappointed with the facility for which he moved across the country. It’s on par, if not better than, spaces available in more well-known biotech hubs, he said. “The space is certainly unique within the state,” Pattison said. “I think what could really take this to the next level … is to have a big $50, $100 million dollar venture capital fund come in and partner with them, or expand on this to really foster and incubate and accelerate a lot of great biotech and talent that is coming out of the Midwest.”

Natalie Yahr | The Capital Times