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Expert: Five Ways DFW Can Nurture the Biotech Boom

DFW is on its way to being a biotech hub, but lab space, convertible real estate, and synergy with local institutions could be improved.
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Biophilic environments that support collaboration create a more human-centric scientific workplace. (Courtesy: LPA Design Studios)

With DFW rising in the ranks of U.S. biotech markets, interest in life science and lab development is at an all-time high. CBRE lists the Dallas cluster as the 6th most robust emerging life science market in the country, thanks to airport connectivity, accessible land, and strong educational institutions.

But a significant obstacle facing the region’s growth as a premier life sciences center is that DFW doesn’t have the lab space. To support continued growth, the region needs to develop a mix of research and development (R&D) and biomanufacturing facilities to meet the specific needs of companies in different stages of development.

Dallas has “the talent and ideas, but lags in physical infrastructure and funding, indicating [a] market ripe for growth if given thoughtful development,” commercial real estate consultant JLL noted in a recent report.

DFW developers and building owners have an opportunity to help DFW realize its potential if they focus on the needs of emerging young companies. Here are five ways developers can help nurture the biotech boom in DFW.

Build the Missing Middle

On the journey from garage to IPO, biotech startups reach milestones where they need to scale up quickly. Early on, coworking facilities like Biolabs at Pegasus Park are ideal, offering startups bench space in a vibrant research environment without significant investment. But startups in Dallas have few facility options after they’ve outgrown coworking. And if they can’t find the space here, they might go elsewhere.

DFW needs speculative lab facilities: spaces that are 70 percent to 80 percent finished and can be quickly adapted to specific tenant needs. The key to de-risking this strategy is finding the right balance of “wet lab ready” core and shell infrastructure with enough flexibility to adapt to the tenant’s unique operational requirements.

Reposition Class B Office Space

Speed-to-market is critical for growing biotech startups. They often need to be able to move in and begin operations in a matter of months, not years. There is an opportunity to retrofit the growing inventory of vacant Class B office space. But there’s a steep learning curve to pulling off a successful lab conversion.

Not every office building is suitable for a lab. A typical lab building needs to accommodate up to 10 times more energy and four times more water than a traditional office. Labs need higher floor-to-floor heights and a robust mechanical, electrical, and plumbing infrastructure to support plug loads and ventilation systems. Finding an existing office building that can meet these needs — and be retrofitted efficiently — requires careful budget analysis and rigorous due diligence.

Develop Near Knowledge Hubs

San Francisco, San Diego, and Boston thrive as biotech hubs in part due to their synergy with local academic and research institutions, which provide access to funding and a highly trained labor pool. The best research clusters provide space for STEM education, workforce development, and incubator labs, serving as hubs of collaboration, innovation, and scientific dialogue.

To compete, DFW should look to develop vibrant urban enclaves connected to research and educational districts. The areas around TCU’s new medical school, UNT Health Sciences Center and Southside Medical District in Forth Worth, Baylor Scott & White’s Texas A&M campus, UT Southwestern Medical District in Dallas, and UTSW/Texas Health Resources Medical Research Campus in Frisco are natural places to start.

Anticipate Demand for Sustainability

Companies considering a move to DFW cite affordable rents and low energy costs as big draws. Many also have Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) goals and high expectations for sustainable design. DFW will need to go beyond business as usual to attract young biotech companies.

Lab buildings are notorious resource hogs, but high-performance design can significantly reduce water, energy, and materials used. The key is understanding the intricacies of lab operations and working with lab users to find opportunities to chip away at resource consumption beyond recycling the building envelope, efficient space utilization, right-sizing MEP systems, and incorporating natural ventilation and daylight where appropriate can improve sustainable performance as well as human health.

Attract Talent With Human-Centered Labs

Coastal biotech hubs invest in high-quality workspace to attract the best scientific talent. DFW can compete by offering the next evolution in design for the scientific workplace with amenities that attract venture capital, philanthropy, and star scientists.

Human-centered labs use a research-based methodology to support human health and wellness, providing choice among diverse work environments and incorporating technology as an extension of the workforce. Biophilic environments offer respite opportunities for scientists to restore focus and improve productivity. Facilities can also support mentorship, collaboration, and inspiration and contribute to mental and physical well-being, helping people from different backgrounds feel empowered to do their best work. This is where the investment in high-quality workspace goes from a recruitment tool to providing a real benefit to scientific discovery.

About the author

Isabel Mandujano leads the laboratory planning practice for LPA Design Studios. The founding officer of the Texas Chapter of the International Institute for Sustainable Laboratories (I2SL), she specializes in creating high-performance laboratories that are inspiring, sustainable, functional, and safe.

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