Groton — The head of the state's chief economic development agency said Tuesday that the state stands ready to help finance a business incubator at Pfizer Inc.'s Eastern Point Road campus if "a critical mass" of entrepreneurs can be found.
Catherine Smith, commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development, said during an hourlong meeting of the Pfizer Reuse Task Force Tuesday at the Mystic Marriott that her agency wants to see a specific plan for the property, including commitments from an unspecified number of start-up companies looking for laboratory space.
"We're very interested in trying to figure out a higher and better use for these properties rather than let them languish or be torn down," Smith said.
About a half dozen companies represented at the meeting expressed interest in forming a business incubator in one of the laboratory buildings that Pfizer has been marketing for almost a year. Pfizer has been shedding workers and real estate worldwide over the past decade, vacating its former worldwide research headquarters in New London two years ago and consolidating operations in Groton while announcing 1,100 layoffs and relocations just last year.
About 40 people attended the meeting, called by the Chamber of Commerce of Eastern Connecticut in an effort to gauge the level of support for an incubator that would take advantage of scientific talent being let go by Pfizer.
"We're looking to come up with a business model that works," Tony Sheridan, president and chief executive of the chamber, said.
Pfizer officials attending the meeting said a decision to tear down the four buildings that are on the market for sale or lease — with space totaling nearly 1 million square feet — likely would be made by the end of the year.
"There's a sense of urgency, for sure," Smith said.
Rita Zangari, who heads the statewide incubation programs run by the University of Connecticut, said the smaller of the Pfizer buildings on the market would be good "follow-on space" for businesses coming out of her programs, including one at UConn's Avery Point campus.
The most suitable location for a business incubator would be either Building 286, with lab and office space situated near the perimeter of Pfizer's site and easily segregated from the company's other activities, or Building 278, a mid-campus lab facility that is slightly smaller. Both spaces are under 25,000 square feet.
Sally Fisher, senior director of real estate strategy for Pfizer, said the company has been marketing its vacant buildings for nearly a year without success. Among the facilities on the market is Building 118, Pfizer's former research headquarters that contains more than 750,000 square feet of space.
"We have been very open to entertaining a variety of offers," Fisher said. "We have yet to strike a deal."
Roger J. Tremblay of Ledyard, an artist and former Naval Underwater Systems Center engineer who hopes to start up a learning center to promote student interest in science, technology, arts and math, was among those with a desire to find incubator space. But he would have to see research-based companies moving into the Pfizer space before committing to a presence there, he said, since building a learning center would be reliant on collaborations with scientists basing their operations at the incubator.
Matthew F. Dunn of Middletown, director of research operations for New Haven-based P2 Science and a former Pfizer scientist, also expressed interest in incubator space, but would consider committing to the project only if small-scale, on-site chemical manufacturing facilities were available. Pfizer, which scrapped its local manufacturing operations four years ago but still maintains some capacity to formulate experimental compounds, indicated none of its vacant buildings was set up for the operation Dunn had in mind.
"We'd like to do it in Connecticut," Dunn said.
Paul Pescatello, president of the pharmaceutical industry group Connecticut United for Research Excellence, promised to survey his membership to gauge the level of interest in Pfizer lab space.
A subcommittee made up of interested parties will be formed to bring a plan for using the Pfizer space to the DECD, which could fund a project through its Connecticut Innovations program.
Mary Anne Rooke, head of the incubator program at Avery Point, said it will be critical for whoever runs the incubator to offer services — such as business development and legal advice — that will help scientists take an idea and make it into a profitable enterprise. She and others worried about a brain drain if Pfizer scientists aren't given a reason to stay in southeastern Connecticut.
"We don't want to see that happen anymore," said Smith, the state's economic development commissioner. "We will support (an incubator) if there is a local team together. We will partner with a team to do this."