ontraFect is a biotech company pioneering the use of monoclonal antibodies and lysins (enzymes that digest the key component of bacteria, the cell wall) to treat life-threatening infectious diseases including MRSA and viruses such as influenza. The fledgling company, which moved to Yonkers, N.Y., in late 2010, has ambitious expansion plans at its new headquarters, which formerly housed Otis Elevator's manufacturing operations.
"We started as a virtual company in a small office in Manhattan with a couple of people," says Dr. Robert Nowinski, ContraFect's founder, chairman and CEO. Nowinski previously founded four biotech companies in the Seattle area which were ultimately acquired by large pharmaceutical companies.
Nowinski says while he is pleased with ContraFect's location, the company nearly wound up in Virginia.
"At the same time we looked at Yonkers, we were talking with a colleague in Virginia and were invited to come to Virginia to discuss our company," Nowinski says. "They were associated with George Mason University. The university became interested in offering us an opportunity for some space if we were willing to move the research elements of our company to Virginia. The initial plan was to create a research institute in Virginia, which would have had our company within that as one of the founders of a public-private institute on the George Mason campus."
The Virginia Legislature subsequently allocated funds for the institute, but the proposal evolved into something larger than originally planned. That caused ContraFect to re-think its position.
"The money was approved in Virginia, but as we began to put together a program, a desire developed in the Virginia Legislature to diversify the institute into not just ourselves and George Mason, but several other universities," Nowinski says. "As this became more complex, we began to see this as not as easy a task as we had anticipated."
At that point, ContraFect began reconsidering the issue of space in New York. Nowinksi returned to Yonkers to meet with Joe Cotter, founder and president of National RE/sources Group, which includes the i.park portfolio of redeveloped industrial properties. The Hudson i.park is a 24-acre (2.2-hectare) technology park in the Yonkers Waterfront District at the Yonkers Train Station. Discussions focused on the cost to build there, rent and tenant improvements.
"We are in a building that is the former Otis Elevator manufacturing plant, which is almost 100 years old," Nowinksi says. "It's a brick building that is scooped out and stands as the basic structure. As things became more complicated in Virginia, we became more interested in Yonkers, and we eventually worked out a plan with the landlord. We also completed a financing arrangement that enabled us to go forward with a larger facility than expected. We simultaneously formed other alliances in New York that suggested we would need larger lab space than initially anticipated."
Nowinski says the combination of a good arrangement with i.park and the opportunity for extensive collaboration with a New York City medical school brought Yonkers back into serious consideration. Another plus was that the building was already home to another life sciences company, Aureon Biosciences.
"We were introduced to the Yonkers economic development group and then the mayor, and in a short period of time, they began to offer various indications of assisting us," Nowinski says. "We made our decision to keep the company intact and that Yonkers would be where we would come."
ContraFect currently occupies 15,000 sq. ft (1,393 sq. m.) and employs 30. Nowinksi anticipates leasing another 22,000 sq. ft. (2,043 sq. m.) within the next several weeks. That space comes from Aureon, which filed for bankruptcy and closed in October. ContraFect also has an option on 17,500 sq. ft. (1,625 sq. m.). Nowinski expects employment to be around 45 by the end of 2012.
Nowinski says ContraFect, which was formed in late 2008, will soon be going into FDA trials with its first product. Manufacturing will initially be outsourced, but he plans to bring that process in house as the first product or two comes to market.
"The biotech industry in New York has developed relatively late," Nowinski says. "We are starting to see some growth here. Space is opening up in Manhattan with some of the large pharmaceuticals taking space to do biotech research in association with the universities there. Most of the smaller companies appear to be going into Westchester County or other areas surrounding Manhattan. We are very pleased to be in Yonkers. Ultimately we were able to get the type of space we needed, we were able to get the personnel we needed from the New York City area, which is an enormous recruiting location, and we have access to our collaborators in Manhattan."