Four Keys to Designing a Thriving Life Science Incubator

| January 16, 2020

by Jeremy Baldwin and Matt Merli

It is no secret that lab space in Greater Boston, Cambridge and arguably the mid-suburbs is limited. As a result, life sciences entrepreneurs looking to find space in the region are being shut out. At the same time, there is a critical need for these young, innovative companies to have a presence in one of the most successful life science clusters in the world. With life science incubators, they can.

Incubators provide a turnkey lab environment that can range from a single lab bench to a large lab that accommodates 100 people. Aside from access to millions of dollars of high-end lab equipment, incubators offer shared amenities such as reception, kitchen, breakrooms, conference rooms, collaboration spaces, IT staff, security, hazardous waste management, janitorial services, and facilities management. In a nutshell, incubators allow start-ups to streamline operations so they can focus on the science.

Take a Neighborhood Approach

When designing a lab-share environment, proper programming and space planning is essential. We view the facility as a mix of public and private neighborhoods of a small city.  Energetic public spaces, such as reception areas, cafes, and bathrooms are located closer to the main entrance, where noise tolerance is higher. Semi-private areas such as workspaces, conference rooms, and breakout spaces are distributed throughout the facility to encourage collaboration. Private laboratories and offices, which require high levels of individual concentration, are located toward the rear of the facility.

Design for Flexible Growth

According to the National Venture Capital Association, approximately one in five biotech firms achieve liquidity after five years. At the same time, there are billions of dollars of venture capital flowing into biotech annually.  This results in an incredible movement of companies in and out of incubator spaces.  Either an incubator tenant company comes in for a few years, fails and then leaves the building, or the incubator tenant succeeds and requires a larger space. This need for flexibility is paramount when planning and designing an incubator space. 

Minimize Infrastructure Costs

Figure 1 -Sample Mechanical Room Drawing with Future Expandability. Green: Installed. Red: Expansion

Designing for flexible growth mitigates upfront costs. With laboratory infrastructure costs running 40-50% of total construction cost, the reduction in capital investment can make costs more palatable across all major infrastructure systems. One area of potential savings is designing base chilled and/or hot water systems to serve the HVAC system (See Figure 1).  By planning for growth, you can also provide larger steel members that will carry future loads along with space allocation for large pieces of equipment.


Strategic Placement of Services

Repetitive lab benches with service panels, snorkel hoods and fume hoods

Within laboratory spaces, repetition and standardization is critical.  As equipment moves in, out and around these spaces, it is important to keep services stationary.  At a recent lab project, we strategically located ceiling panels to provide power, tel/data, gas and other needs. When it comes time to reconfigure the space, the layout can be easily changed with minimal disruption to services.  Moveable laboratory furniture with built-in infrastructure was also used to facilitate reconfiguration.

Initially, the incubator model may sound disruptive to tenants but businesses are quickly evolving.  Individuals and corporations are more open to collaboration and sharing information than ever before. By minimizing start-up costs and jumpstarting research and development, incubators are helping young life science companies flourish. When properly designed, facilities using this new lab-share model will thrive.

Jeremy Baldwin


Jeremy Baldwin, AIA is a registered architect for Maugel Architects specializing in the life sciences market.




Matthew Merli

Matthew Merli, PE is an associate principal and science and technology market leader for Fitzemeyer and Tocci.

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Category: All, contributor, Life Science

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