Chamber eyes Pfizer lab space for startups

Groton - The Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut is throwing its weight behind the idea of using vacant laboratory space at Pfizer Inc. for both established and startup scientific businesses.

"We want to build an interest here," said Tony Sheridan, president and chief executive of the Chamber, in a phone interview Monday. "We would like to pull together as many interested parties as possible."

Jean Schaefer, a former Pfizer scientist who tried to organize an innovation hub in southeastern Connecticut earlier this year but did not receive state support, said she knows of at least two businesses - neither of which she would name - that would be interested in using the Groton lab space. But each of them could move on to other state-supported incubator space if the process drags out, she said.

"Things need to move rather quickly for them to be accommodated," Schaefer said.

Schaefer said the Pfizer labs are ideally suited to companies requiring chemistry space. The idea would be to get Pfizer to donate a building, she said, and form a group that would run the space as an incubator program, perhaps with support from the University of Connecticut.

"We need to get a critical mass of three to four companies," she said, "and that could attract others, especially if one has a track record of success."

Jim O'Malley, chief executive of the New London biotech firm Myometrics, said he supports the idea of Pfizer, his former employer, opening up lab space to startups. He added that Myometrics is growing out of room so fast that it also might use the Pfizer space for expansion if it becomes available.

"It's a very positive thing," O'Malley said of local efforts to use the Pfizer space.

Sheridan said he met two weeks ago in Groton with Catherine Smith, commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development, as well as Rod MacKenzie, Pfizer's site leader, and other community and political leaders to discuss plans for Pfizer's four vacant buildings on its campus off Eastern Point Road.

The DECD, Sheridan said, asked him to arrange a follow-up meeting to determine the level of interest among local firms in using the Pfizer lab space. Anyone interested should call the Chamber offices at (860) 701-9113, he said.

"The key here is that Pfizer is certainly willing to meet with us," Sheridan said.

Pfizer has been trying to market about 840,000 square feet of vacant buildings on its campus - either for sale or lease - over the past several months. The buildings have been vacated as the pharmaceutical giant downsized local operations while laying off or relocating about 900 people in the past year.

DECD officials in April met with members of the Groton Economic Development Commission and discussed various plans to save the buildings, including tax incentives and a possible arrangement in which a nonprofit group would acquire a building on behalf of several startup companies. Dominick Ianno, director of public affairs for Pfizer's global sites in the Northeast, said at the time that the pharmaceutical giant would prefer selling or leasing the buildings to one entity rather than carving out deals with a variety of smaller players.

State officials concerned with a talent drain away from Connecticut as scientists leave Pfizer in waves have been proactive in trying to turn the vacant buildings into a positive for the region, local officials said.

"Getting these businesses up and running is important for retaining the talent," said O'Malley, the Myometrics executive.

l.howard@theday.com

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