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Essentials of Laboratory Design for Biotech Startups

Finding your startup’s first home can be a daunting experience. Your lab space will need to support your company’s research as you push your ideas toward realization, providing a place where you can perform good science in a safe and productive environment. There are a lot of issues to consider as you begin your search for the perfect environment for your team to succeed; here are a few key questions to help you frame your search.

Planning your company’s first lab

When you look for a new residence, your first consideration is probably the size of house or apartment you will need - how many bedrooms will you need to house your whole family? Similarly, when you consider a home for your biotech startup, you need to think about how much space you will need to accommodate your research team.

How many people will you have working in your space? How much large, floor-hogging equipment, such as fume hoods, biosafety cabinets, freezers, etc. will you need to support your research program? Your laboratory research team might only be one or two people to start with, but you will need to be able to expand as you make progress, raise capital, and grow your team. You need to ask yourself how long you can reasonably expect to stay in your first location before you need to move on to a larger facility. Incubator or coworking laboratories may provide a flexible arrangement for your company’s early stages by allowing you to grow bench-by-bench, but eventually you will need to find your own facility as your company grows beyond their capacity.

Once you have an idea of how many people you will have working in your lab, you can start to estimate how much space they will need; a typical single lab bench requires somewhere in the region of 40-60 square feet of space, once you take into account the size of the bench itself, plus the necessary clearance around it for your scientist to work in. Don’t forget those large pieces of equipment, such as freezers or ultracentrifuges - all of these take up valuable floor space, and you should always allow for at least 4ft of clearance around benches and equipment for walkways.

In addition to your research team, you’ll more than likely hire a number of office-based employees as your company grows, plus you’ll need desk space for the scientists to do their office work. Most modern biotech lab facilities have an office/lab ratio somewhere around 50% (+/- 10%) - that is, for every square food of lab space, you’ll have an equivalent amount of office space for your team to work in. The great thing about offices is that they are much easier and cheaper to design and build than labs!

Once you have a general idea of just how much space you’ll need to accommodate your team, you need to think about some more fundamental aspects of the building you will plan to inhabit. What kind of lab space will your team need? The design needs of a lab space for stem cell research will inevitably be very different than for a company researching biofuels. While all biotech research requires a reasonably clean environment, the complexity and cost of your space will increase almost exponentially as you ascend the scale of engineered sterility.

Whether your entire research program is low-risk Biosafety level (BSL) 1, or you are using potentially infectious BSL2+ human cell cultures, you need to create a space that can handle the highest level of biohazard you will work with - knowing this now will help immeasurably before you begin to engage with real estate professionals to realize your vision.

Designing your space

Now that you have a basic idea of how much space you will need, and what specific type of laboratory you will need to build, it’s time to start looking for a property. Finding the right building, in the right location, with the right infrastructure is a complex task, so make sure you find good help from a real estate professional to find a property that will work for you.

In addition to the building itself, one of the most important considerations before moving ahead is whether it has sufficient electrical and data service; it is truly surprising how many commercial and industrial properties have insufficient electrical supply, or still rely on DSL-era telecoms. For a modern biolab, you need significant electrical supply - ideally at least 800Amps (based on a typical ~10k square foot lab), and you need true high-speed internet to support the modern, data-heavy research program that your team will be pursuing. You probably already know what essential equipment you will be using, so you can easily put together an estimate of your total power needs just by checking the information labels on your current equipment (or the product specifications of stuff you intend to buy), and adding up the total Amps you will need to power it all. Your architects and engineers will be able to incorporate this information, together with the loads for building systems, such as HVAC, to estimate the total electrical power your space will require, and plan accordingly.

Ultimately, if you are developing your own space from scratch, you will need to help of an architect - in addition to helping you understand the technical aspects of your buildout that will be necessary for your local government’s zoning and permitting requirements, a good architect is an invaluable support in communicating technical requirements with the various contractors you will need to work with. Before you hire an architect, make sure to ask if they have specific experience in building biotech laboratories, and ask for references! A good architect will not only help you create a space that is optimized for your work, but will also be able to help you out with planning for all of the things you never thought about, but definitely need - from HVAC design, to safety showers, emergency backup power, and proper storage space for hazardous materials.

Finally, you’ll need to populate your lab with equipment for your research. Sourcing and purchasing all the equipment you will need for your lab can seem like a daunting task, but there are a number simple principles that you can apply to make the most of your limited funds. For starters, many local trade associations offer significant member discounts from major research suppliers; many also do a low rate membership for new or startup companies, so a small outlay to join your local biotech industry association will help you obtain discounts on your equipment, in addition to the networking, fundraising, and business development opportunities. In addition, suppliers are often willing to give discounts on large orders, such as when you are first setting up your lab, so be sure to ask about bundles!

One big question is whether, and when, it is appropriate to use used equipment. In general, a company that has plans to do any manufacturing or experiments that must be conducted under GLP/GMP conditions will need to purchase all new equipment. Young companies that are fully focused on R&D however, can find significant savings by buying used lab items, such as -80 freezers or centrifuges, that will last for years. Some larger lab resellers perform maintenance and offer warranties on used equipment, but even eBay can be a great source of quality, affordable items. If you buy used equipment, make sure to do your diligence on the seller, understand their return/refund policies, and be sure to check that any consumables it requires are still available. Equipment that is crucial to the sterility and success of your biological research is best sourced new - for instance, ultrapure water systems or cell culture incubators. Finally, one of the most important rules for buying lab equipment, “if you would find it in a high school lab, it’s cheaper on Amazon.” Common everyday lab items from graduated cylinders to microscopes are often available through major online retailers for a fraction of the price of lab suppliers. You can even make a wish list for your next birthday!

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