Forward BIOLABS leverages coworking to support biotech startups

As coworking becomes more popular among freelancers and small business professionals, the biotechnology industry is also seeing new opportunities to leverage the model. 

Madison-based Forward BIOLABS is a biotech coworking space that allows biotech startups to get off the ground without the overhead and supply cost. On average, Forward BIOLABS helps reduce the time to startup by six to nine months without the hefty overhead price tag of getting a lab up and running.

The coworking space includes offices and a fully equipped life sciences lab. Most of the equipment in the lab is used sporadically, explained founder Jessica Martin Eckerly. By sharing that space with other startups, Forward BIOLABS makes more efficient use of the expensive equipment.  

The “membership” is month-to-month. It costs startups $1,750 for the first bench per month and $1,000 for every additional bench. Since Forward BIOLABS launched its pilot in 2018 and has since gone to a larger footprint, five startups — and one more this month — have graduated into their own space, she said.

Each company that enters is at a different stage in their work, for example, getting funding, filing a patent, working on a technical issue, trying to resolve a scientific hurdle in product development, building a customer base or making connections. 

“There’s nothing like this, there is nothing like Forward BIOLABS in the Midwest,” Eckerly said, adding that while coworking lab facilities are new in the grand scheme of things, more exist on the coasts. 

Supporting entrepreneurial ambitions in Wisconsin through the coworking model is instrumental in keeping biotech talent in the state. Currently, 16 startups are using the space in a variety of disciplines from gene therapy to food science and medical devices to agriculture technology. Almost all of them are based in the Madison area.

“What we’re doing for biotech in Madison and Wisconsin is really working to enhance our ecosystem by lowering the risk of investment since invested dollars go straight to the science and straight to the staff,” Eckerly said. “We’re working to help increase the number of startups in our area because with every additional startup, we’re increasing the chances that Wisconsin has more powerhouse companies like Promega, like Exact (Sciences), more startups, more opportunity for our industry to grow.”

The coworking space is more than a money- and time-saver. It also provides startups with a community. In the biotech space, little companies made up of a handful of people can feel isolating, she explained. When in a common facility with a support system, people feel less isolated.

Those popular attributes of a coworking model can also attract more diversity in the biotech industry, where women founders and founders of color make up a small percentage in the field.

Eckerly said she would love to see more women and people of color in the biotech space. A goal for Forward BIOLABS, an early-stage organization itself, is to expand its intern program to purposefully include women and minorities. 

“I’m excited to continue that because I think it opens doors for people at a younger age earlier in their career to get a foot into biotech,” she said. “The biotech industry can do more in general to help encourage, and I think that by reducing the barriers, we will help.” 

-By Stephanie Hoff