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BioLabs to open lab space for startups in Chapel Hill

There’s been a predictable script in the Triangle’s life sciences scene for years.

Promising startups emerge from the labs at UNC-Chapel Hill ready to grow into full-fledged companies. But consistently they have to leave the town of Chapel Hill to find room to grow.

A lack of lab space in the town forced many promising companies to downtown Durham or Research Triangle Park, where developers kept churning out new lab space, frustrating economic developers in Chapel Hill and Orange County.

But a new landing spot for Chapel Hill startups could be on the horizon, as BioLabs, a provider of flexible lab space for young companies, has committed to opening a location on Franklin Street in downtown Chapel Hill.

BioLabs is a national provider of flexible lab space for young biotech startups. It has 17 labs in 10 cities across the country, including Boston, San Diego and Los Angeles. In addition to providing flexible space, it also helps connect promising companies with investors and other resources.

In 2018, the company opened a 42,000-square-foot space in the Chesterfield building in downtown Durham that has become one of the most active startup hubs in the region. Promising startups like Atsena Therapeutics, StrideBio and Oerth Bio have all used it is a launching pad.

Ed Field, president of BioLabs North Carolina, said BioLabs’ Durham location has “been unbelievably successful,” and around 70 companies have used its facilities.

Many of the companies there have some relation to Duke University, whose East Campus is less than a mile away.

The hope is that it can replicate that success in Chapel Hill, which has already sent several companies to its Durham location.

BioLabs will take on 23,000 square feet of space at 137 E. Franklin St., a building being redeveloped by Charlotte-based developer Grubb Properties.

Field said that is the equivalent of around one floor of the building and is enough space for around 20 to 25 companies, depending on the each company’s needs. The Chapel Hill location could open as soon as the second half of next year, Field added.

BioLabs is working closely with UNC on the project, as the university hopes to create an “innovation district” in the heart of Chapel Hill and launch more UNC-affiliated startups.

BioLabs “has a reputation for helping local startups grow and build out,” said Matt Gladdek, executive director at Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership, an organization that supports businesses. “UNC has an incredible amount of life science talent that has had to find space in Downtown Durham or RTP previously, and now they’ll have access to grow their ideas across the street from campus.”

Field said the Chapel Hill location shouldn’t struggle to draw interest because of its central location.

“Companies and people in our space love the urban setting (of BioLabs),” Field said. “They like to live and work and eat and drink all in one area. And that has been unusual for this region.”

But many companies, he added, are forced to move to offices outside of the downtown cores because there is a lack of lab space for larger companies there.

Traditionally, the Triangle’s biotech companies have operated out of suburban office parks, but younger founders and employees have shown more interest in urban office settings. That is one reason the Research Triangle Foundation, the not-for-profit that runs RTP, has pushed so hard for Hub RTP, a project that promises to create a town center inside of the business park.

“I think that bodes really well for the Chapel Hill model,” Field said, “because I think they’ll have the exact same feeling (as they do in Durham), which is they’ll start there, love that, and then I think they’re going to want to stay.

“And that’s going to create a lot of economic development opportunity for larger (lab) space in Chapel Hill, and hopefully keep those companies there.”

This story was produced with financial support from a coalition of partners led by Innovate Raleigh as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work. Learn more; go to bit.ly/newsinnovate.

This story was originally published September 22, 2021 3:32 PM.

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Zachery Eanes is the Innovate Raleigh reporter for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun. He covers technology, startups and main street businesses, biotechnology, and education issues related to those areas.

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