Georgia Tech incubator aims to become catalyst for life sciences

Portal Innovations CEO said Atlanta is poised to compete nationally for medical science startups
This is a rendering Science Square, a development project between Trammell Crow Company and Georgia Tech.

Credit: Trammell Crow Company

Credit: Trammell Crow Company

This is a rendering Science Square, a development project between Trammell Crow Company and Georgia Tech.

It’s not easy to court an industry, especially one as technical and costly as the future of medicine.

A market needs specialized infrastructure and a flowing pipeline of skilled scientists, but most of all, an industry that relies on experimentation needs copious amounts of cash and a roster of financial backers — something Atlanta is trying to attract.

“Great science has to be matched with great money,” said John Flavin, CEO and founder of Portal Innovations, a life sciences venture capital fund.

His Chicago-based company will occupy a floor in the first building of Science Square, an 18-acre innovation district for medical and technology startups backed by Georgia Tech that’s currently under construction. The project at North Avenue and Northside Drive is among Georgia’s most notable attempts to pursue the life science sector and become a rival to biomedical research hubs like Boston, North Carolina’s Research Triangle and San Francisco.

Georgia is the home of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Task Force for Global Health and medical schools, including Emory, Morehouse, Mercer and the Medical College of Georgia in Augusta.

For decades, Georgia has targeted bioscience companies and investment, which reached new levels of exposure following the COVID-19 pandemic. The state has landed large projects, such as Boston Scientific and the Alcon contact lens complex in Johns Creek, and the Takeda plasma-therapy plant near Social Circle. Another recent win is Meissner Corporation, which will manufacture microfiltration and pharmaceutical products in Athens.

This is a rendering of Boston Scientific's future facility in Johns Creek.

Credit: Colliers

icon to expand image

Credit: Colliers

But Flavin told a crowd of more than 100 educators, venture capitalists and business leaders at a Metro Atlanta Chamber event earlier this month that it takes time and exposure to gain a foothold.

“In a young ecosystem, oftentimes it’s a foreign experience figuring out how to start a company or what problems you’re trying to solve,” Flavin said. “You’re starting to see more of that activity happen, and you’ll see momentum build.”

Science Square, which was formally known as Technology Enterprise Park, will consist of five phases and will eventually include more than 2.3 million square feet of lab and office space spread across five buildings. The first phase, a 13-story building called Science Square Labs, broke ground last August and is set to open in early 2024.

Portal Innovations was the first tenant announced for the project and will operate an incubator, leasing out space to aspiring entrepreneurs and providing seed funding. Georgia Tech President Angel Cabrera said it will be the medical companion to Tech Square’s Coda building, a glitzy technology and research tower that opened in 2019.

Cabrera said the “square” branding for all of these projects is intentional, since they will act as meeting spaces.

“I’m from Spain, and there’s no town in Spain without a town square,” he said. “They’re essential to the creation of new ideas.”

Georgia Tech President Ángel Cabrera (center), alongside elected officials and special guests, participated in the groundbreaking of Georgia Tech’s Science Square. Science Square is a development by Trammell Crow Company, High Street Residential, and Georgia Tech. Miguel Martinez / miguel.martinezjimenez@ajc.com

Credit: Miguel Martinez

icon to expand image

Credit: Miguel Martinez

The massive Science Square site abuts the English Avenue and Vine City neighborhoods. The site falls within an federal Opportunity Zone, an area that provides tax credits for development projects in low-income neighborhoods. The Development Authority of Fulton County also approved up to $29.4 million in property tax breaks for the development. Georgia Tech’s development partner, Trammell Crow, is building a new pedestrian bridge to connect the west Atlanta neighborhoods to the institute’s campus.

Katherine Lynch, a Trammell Crow principal, said designing lab space is different from other co-working offices due to the varied equipment and needs of scientists. She said labs need redundant water systems, robust exhaust infrastructure and constant fresh air.

“We’re trying to create a structure, a system, that can withstand any kind of special equipment that you might need,” she said.

Flavin said roughly half of all life sciences startups sprout out of just 10 universities across the United States. He said Atlanta, with its concentration of Georgia Tech, Georgia State University and multiple Historically Black Colleges and Universities, presents untapped potential.

“With too much concentration on one area, you start to neglect innovation and access that can happen in other parts of the country,” he said.

Portal’s flagship location in Chicago called Fulton Labs hosts 35 startups at a time, and Flavin aims to recreate that model in Atlanta. The Science Square location will be able to host about 20 startups. If those startups take off, that means expansion and new investment in Georgia.

One of Georgia’s largest development projects, the 2,000-acre Rowen project in Gwinnett County, has major bioscience ramifications. The mammoth project aims to become a new landing spot for startups looking to grow their footprint while remaining in the Peach State near Georgia’s universities.

Flavin said he expects Georgia’s life sciences investment will multiply over the coming decades.

“We’re make a bet that by being here and using our model that we’re at the beginning of a decade or 20 years of strong growth,” he said.

About the Author