Finding affordable lab space can be challenging for many start-up science-based companies. Having access to a flexible lab space in the right location with the option to use a single shared bench space right through to a fully customised laboratory can make all the difference. For many companies renting lab space is a simple solution.
Here John Breen, Kinetic Labs Centre Manager tells us more about his experience gaining access to laboratory space while managing a start-up science-based company.
Tell us more about your background
Prior to taking up the role of Kinetic Labs Manager I was CTO/COO of a start-up (MOF Technologies) spun out of Queens University Belfast (QUB). MOF Technologies is typical of many innovative start-ups that grow from a research laboratory at a third level college. Prof. Stuart James with support from the QUB investment fund and some external investors set up a company to commercialise the production of Metal Organic Frameworks (MOFs) using mechanochemical technology in 2012.
By the time that I joined in 2015:
- The company had developed a number of products and could make them at small scale (< 1 kg), enough material to supply a handful of customers with sufficient quantity to conduct trials.
- There were three full and one part time employees in the company.
- The R&D staff had strong academic backgrounds but limited industrial experience and at the time, product and process development and manufacture of small commercial quantities of the MOFs were all taking place in the corner of a large shared academic laboratory.
How did you address the need for more lab space?
My background in both academia and process development and commercialisation in a multinational pharma company meant that I was well equipped for the onerous task of lifting the company from its academic roots and professionalising it.
There were a variety of issues that needed fixing:
- The use of the shared academic laboratory was a big problem – there were tensions between academics and company staff with respect to space and use of equipment.
- It was difficult to set professional standards of laboratory hygiene and health and safety in a shared environment.
- There were concerns over insurance and leakage of company know-how and IP.
- There was no space to expand.
This came to a head when we were fortunate enough to be successful in a EU Horizon2020 funding application. This provided us with funding to purchase a large-scale extruder for scaling up of MOF production. We now had funds for equipment but nowhere to put it!
The university were short on space and reluctant to give us our own laboratory but we eventually managed to secure a small laboratory on campus (but no office space) and came to an agreement with the university to refurbish it. That was half the battle, it took over a year to refurbish the laboratory to our specifications. We could not deal directly with the contractors but instead had to work through University Estates creating substantial delays and inefficiencies.
Once the laboratory construction had finished it was already too small.
How did you expand your lab space?
The company grew its customer base, been successful in raising Series A funding and was the recipient of another substantial Horizon2020 grant, staff numbers had doubled. However, we didn’t have the space to expand. At this point staff were spread across three sites with offices in three different buildings and one small laboratory. We didn’t have sufficient funds to build our own premises, there were no incubators with wet lab space in Belfast and there was no available space in the University.
Eventually we found a short-term solution with a laboratory and offices a couple of miles away from the university in old government laboratories in the process of being mothballed. I hadn’t expected to see wooden fume cupboards and benches again after leaving secondary school! I moved the R&D team to this laboratory and maintained the production team in the university lab.
By the time that we moved in, the company had grown to 12 employees, our order book was increasing and we had been successful again in a Horizon2020 grant. However, we were now spread across laboratories in 2 different locations and offices in a further two locations. The team did admirably well to keep the momentum going but the degree of dislocation undoubtedly put a brake on growth. There were logistic issues with moving equipment and chemicals back and forth, natural impediments to communication between two teams that needed to be working in close proximity, not to mention different sets of workplace procedures and regulations to meet in both places.
How did you make the move to managing Kinetic Labs?
Despite these issues, I’m happy to say that MOF Technologies continues to survive but by 2018, tired of commuting up and down to my family in Waterford at weekends, I left MOF Technologies to set up my own company (Sorbent Engineering). I was grateful to the PMBRC research group (in Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT)) for providing me with some bench space in a corner of one of their research labs to develop my product. However, in a rerun of my experience in Belfast, laboratory space in WIT was at a premium and the research lab was in constant use by students and post-docs making it less than ideal.
I decided to build a small workshop in my garage and moved operations there. I was successful in developing a prototype device for removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. However, I found the experience of working on my own from home quite isolating and crunch time really arrived for me when my carbon dioxide detector failed and I was faced with the cost of an expensive replacement.
At around the same time I noticed an advert for a Manager of a new incubator being set up at WorkLAB in Waterford. I decided that the hurdles to me making a success of my own company were too high and that instead I could use the knowledge and experience in the life sciences and chemical start-up space to help other companies and start-ups to be successful. I applied for the position and am now managing the setup of the first wet lab incubator (Kinetic Labs) in the South East.
How will renting lab space from Kinetic Labs make a difference?
Kinetic Labs will have many of the facilities and supports that were lacking for me in my start-up journey. Through renting lab space at Kinetic Labs companies can access:
- Brand new laboratories – a shared laboratory for companies starting out and individual furnished/unfurnished facilities for more established companies.
- The excellent facilities at WorkLAB – offices, meeting rooms, café and a community of established companies and start-ups.
- Facilities and knowledge from WIT which is located a short walk away. To me this is the best of both worlds, working within a third level institute can be challenging (as I found out from experience) but having access to the facilities and knowledge within these institutes is a must for many start-ups.
- The enterprise support offices – the regional Enterprise Ireland, IDA and South East Business Innovation Centre are all a 5-minute walk away.
Finally, and very importantly there is a very strong team of people and much local goodwill behind this project – Richie Walsh, Seamus Kilgannon and Patsy Carney are all hands-on directors of Kinetic Labs. Richie is head of Enterprise at the Local Enterprise Office (LEO), a strong supporter of the project. Seamus is a serial entrepreneur who is backing this project both financially and with much appreciated support and advice. Patsy is a role model for any start up – building a world class pharma company (Eirgen) from scratch. He has given much of his spare time freely to this project and has been an invaluable support in helping get this project off the ground.
Would you like to find out more about renting lab space at Kinetic Labs?
Kinetic Labs was set-up to provide science-based companies in the South East with the lab facilities to develop their products and processes. You will be able to access 400 m2 of high-quality lab space together with office space, meeting rooms and all the facilities required to grow your company.
To find out more about renting lab space at Kinetic Labs, contact our team today.