The life sciences industry has been a bright spot in the U.S. economy, with private investors putting more than $16 billion to work in the first half of 2020. That is in addition to a steady stream of government funding, with the National Institutes of Health ramping up grants from $11 billion in 1994 to $39.1 billion in 2019.
While the discovery and production of COVID-19-related therapeutics, antibody tests and especially a vaccine are all contributing factors to this influx of funding, there are other fundamentals that underpin the life sciences industry: an aging U.S. population that demands life-sustaining and life-extending care; wellness-conscious millennials in their peak earning years driving personalized treatment; and a prescription drug market on track to reach $1 trillion by 2022.
To capture funding and reap the huge rewards of being first-to-market, life sciences companies must fend off fierce competition from large, established businesses and start-ups alike. Increasingly, that means creating a work environment that encourages innovation and productivity while remaining flexible to meet new and evolving demands.
Digitalization Changes the Nature of Lab Work
Greater adoption of technology at every level of life sciences companies is fueling changes in the physical work environment.
Today’s lab workers are equally comfortable analyzing vast quantities of data with the assistance of machine learning and artificial intelligence as they are conducting chemical-based experiments. That means a growing portion of today’s lab looks more like a traditional office, even if its operational systems are far more sophisticated.
This computational focus can capture and analyze millions of data points, compare data sets with sources from around the world, and deliver the targeted insights that spur new innovation — all in a fraction of the time that was possible with analog approaches, provided the enhanced infrastructure to power advanced computer systems is in place. Ensuring those requirements are met will be essential to the next generation of lab space.
Greater adoption of computer work has spurred remote and flexible work policies in other industries, but life sciences workers need more than a standard laptop to be effective. When COVID-19 lockdowns forced a reckoning of the industry’s entrenched belief that in-person collaboration is vital to innovating new solutions, the industry responded by sending administrative jobs off-site and embracing staggered shifts and social distancing to keep lab work on track to meet growing demand.
This bifurcated approach is likely to continue long past the current challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic as lab space grows even more valuable. Administrative functions will be remote, or moved to a different corporate location, while lab space is reconfigured to accommodate both social distancing and greater productivity needs. Flexible lab space that can adjust to a variety of work tasks with limited downtime will be critical, along with “free” space that can be called on to meet changing industry conditions.
Determining Where Work Happens
Innovation is driven by top-tier talent, which remains in short supply throughout the industry.
Traditionally, life sciences labs have been located in a handful of primary markets to attract the best and brightest: Boston, San Francisco and San Diego, which together secured up to 70% of venture capital investments in 2019. These locations boast proximity to a highly educated workforce and deep ties to leading research institutions that incubate next-generation ideas.
Some companies have started to look beyond these juggernaut cities to secondary markets, which also offer access to world-class talent with the added benefit of lower costs of living and a smaller population of well-funded competitors to contend with.
Whether life sciences companies decide to relocate entirely to these secondary markets — which include Maryland, North Carolina’s Research Triangle, Philadelphia, New York and Los Angeles — or merely move a portion of their workforce, life sciences work force is bound to become more dispersed as critical lab space in the highest-cost areas is reserved for the most essential functions.
The Enduring Need for Speed
One area where proximity can’t be replaced: manufacturing. The pandemic highlighted the need to reshore drug manufacturing to better control the supply chain and avoid the complications that can keep new products from reaching the market.
Connecting lab space to manufacturing requires enough Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) space to produce, process and package pharmaceuticals and medical devices, with the ability to scale up to meet market demand.
The time it takes to build such facilities, however, is often at odds with the timeframe in which their products are needed. Markets with GMP space to lease or reuse will likely be more effective at capturing the benefits of life science innovation as adoption of onshore manufacturing grows.
The need for speed, efficiency and productivity in life sciences has never been greater. The desire for good health and longevity is unlikely to subside, meaning cutting-edge, productivity-enhancing life sciences will remain in demand — along with the real estate that supports it.