The RACP grant marks next step in university’s successful transformational efforts to attract science-based companies to campus, bringing innovation, revenue, and paid student internships
CHEYNEY, PA – Cheyney University of Pennsylvania’s plans to serve as a regional bioscience innovation center for private companies has received a major boost – a $5 million grant from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
The “ThinkUbator” will extend the model Cheyney has been building since 2017 with life science companies moving their operations to campus. Most of those companies operate in the university’s Science Center, providing a revenue stream to the school and paid internship opportunities for Cheyney students who work for these on-campus companies.
The ThinkUbator, which will be built out in a 70,000-square-foot building, is designed by Integrated Project Services, LLC (IPS), the same company that built Pfizer and Moderna’s COVID vaccine labs. The four-sided building with an open middle sets up perfectly for lab space and will accommodate the needs of a wide range of companies from small start-ups to larger companies that have the need for greater space.
The building will allow small businesses to incubate new programs and work with other like-minded scientists in a communal space.
“The companies already operating on our campus working with our student interns provided proof that our concept works for all parties, the university, the students and the businesses,” said Cheyney President Aaron A. Walton. “The businesses we have brought onto our campus and into our lab space have a real interest in being here. This grant from the Wolf administration gives us a major spark to continue to expand on that model in a more robust way. The financial commitment on the part of the Governor Wolf, US Senator Bob Casey, State Senator Vincent Hughes, and other supporters is greatly appreciated.”
“As America’s first historically Black university, Cheyney has a long history of supporting determined, innovative students and putting them on the path to a brighter future,” Governor Wolf said. “The ThinkUbator is helping to bring the life sciences community to Cheyney’s campus, through partnerships that will advance groundbreaking research while also helping to train a new generation of life science leaders and innovators.”
The Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (RACP) grant, along with an additional $400,000 in federal appropriations funding advanced by Pennsylvania U.S. Senator Bob Casey’s office, will go toward building the first phase of the project, which will cost $10-$11 million. Mosaic Development Partners, the Philadelphia-based African American-owned real estate development company which has helped guide Cheyney’s campus transformational efforts over the past three years, is leading the effort.
“We believe we can build the most diverse pipeline of student talent available for companies in the greater Philadelphia region that are looking for science-based students that have real-life experience,” said Mosaic Principal and Managing Member Greg Reaves. “These students are, and will be, working side-by-side with great technicians, scientists and physicians. We want them to get hands-on experiences while they’re in school.”
The Chester County Economic Development Council (CCEDC) has also played a major supporting role on moving this project forward and will be helping with a significant portion of the financing.
“CCEDC and Cheyney University have been longtime partners, so establishing the university as a center for life sciences innovation through the ThinkUbator is an exciting next chapter,” said Patrick Hayakawa, CCEDC’s Vice President of Innovation & Marketing. “We see a rising need in the region for wet labs, space for young companies to grow and collaborate, and for life sciences workforce development. The ThinkUbator addresses all these components and brings high-quality jobs and training opportunities to the county. To have it housed at the nation’s first HBCU makes this project even more unique and impactful.”
The project will renovate the building’s infrastructure including the HVAC system, increased electrical capacity, plumbing, and new windows. The interior space will be renovated into bench space (the space where work is prepped, experiments take place, readings are taken, and lab equipment is stored and used), wet labs (labs with sinks), a training facility, and cold and dry storage. Special equipment and casement will also be installed. This will allow the ThinkUbator to offer biologics, cell, and gene therapy companies the opportunity to pursue their science in a campus setting.
IPS, one of the world’s top lab designers, developed the idea for the ThinkUbator before the original COVID outbreak, but put the project on hold until after it became clear people would again be willing to work together in person, notwithstanding the current temporary surge from the Omicron variant.
Thomas Piombino, IPS’s Vice President and Biotechnology Process Architect, said for him as a Chester County native and his company, taking on this project is part of their mission.
“We want to develop an ecosystem that promotes entrepreneurs that are minority, or not, and can use the student population to grow their business,” Piombino said. “We are positioning the building to accommodate a company that needs a whole lab and wants that autonomy where there’s not a company right next to them doing similar work, and we want to also be able to rent a lab bench or two. We also want to attract companies that aren’t even at the bench yet. These could be start-ups that have a great idea and maybe some foundational science or a service to offer the life sciences industry and need space to incubate their company.”
Cheyney’s 275-acre campus sits amid a beautiful area on the Chester-Delaware County border. The university’s model monetizes that real estate by appealing to companies who prefer to operate in this kind of a setting and with motivated students available to help them build on their ideas. Cheyney has intentionally attracted science and math students, projecting that within two years 30 percent of all students will be STEM majors.
Another partner in this venture is CBS BioPharma, a Philadelphia pharmaceutical and biotech company that has been instrumental is creating Cheyney’s academic partnership with the Wistar Institute life sciences program.
The company will open a pilot plant as a contract manufacturer to support start-up biotech companies or companies with products at the end if their lifecycle to scale up or scale down production.
“There has always been a gap in minority representation in the biotech-life sciences field,” said CBS BioPharma Managing Partner Calvin R. Snowden Jr. “By launching this ThinkUbator at Cheyney and having these companies on campus, my hope is not only that these companies thrive but also that it leads to opportunities in the industry.”
President Walton believes that making Cheyney a regional bioscience center will help the university grow its student body from its current enrollment of about 650 and continue to attract high achieving students. He also said recruiting for businesses will continue during construction.
“We already have the interest. We just don’t have the space,” Walton said. “There are a number of businesses that would prefer not to go into a large city, and so we want have a home for them. We don’t want them to leave the state or this area. We offer an alternative where they can do the work they want to do where they want to be. So why not do it at an intimate college campus like Cheyney?”
Mosaic’s Reaves said construction should begin in the coming months.
“Given the urgency around life sciences, we should have the first phase done in 2023,” he said. “The additional phases will follow as we generate more interest and financing.”