The Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard will expand out of Kendall Square with a new gene sequencing facility on Network Drive in Burlington, part of a steady migration of Cambridge biotech researchers to a growing suburban life science cluster. Image courtesy of SGA

Corporate headquarters ribbon-cuttings attract headlines and VIP appearances, but developers in Burlington say the key to expanding Boston suburbs’ newest life science cluster will be providing a landing pad for early-stage biotechs. 

The Middlesex County suburb of 26,000 has been overshadowed by growth submarkets such as Watertown and Waltham capturing life science expansion in recent years, but recent leasing and development activity is establishing Burlington’s name recognition in industry circles. 

The Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard’s recent commitment to a new 146,000-square-foot gene sequencing facility at 25-27 Network Drive could have a transformative effect similar to Vertex Pharmaceuticals’ relocation to Boston’s Seaport District in 2014, said John Coakley, a partner at tenant representation brokerage Cresa in Boston. 

“The cluster effect is huge. These early-stage companies don’t want to be the first and only one in an area, and Burlington hasn’t had the concentration we’ve seen in other areas on Route 128 such as Waltham,” Coakley said. 

Ground-Up and Office Conversions Planned 

Developers are proposing and building a range of ground-up construction and office conversions to accommodate newcomers in various stages of the industry life cycle, from speculative clean rooms and R&D labs to biomanufacturing. 

The Cambridge-based Broad Institute, which partners with Harvard-affiliated hospitals and global researchers, will use the Burlington location to augment its primary facility in Kendall Square. Vericel Corp. previously leased 125,000 square feet at the property, being developed by Burlington-based Nordblom Co. and Starwood Capital Group into a 1 million-square-foot campus, for its own relocation and expansion. 

Massachusetts’ economic boom of the 1980s was driven in large part by suburban tech and defense industry expansion, contributing to the growth of office parks along Route 128 and Interstate 495. Many of those same buildings are being repurposed for the state’s current economic driver and offer proximity to retail amenities and an educated workforce, said Kris Galletta, chief investment officer at Nordblom Co. 

“The same reasons the defense and software industries were drawn to Burlington before are the reasons we think it’s going to be successful from a life science perspective,” Galletta said. 

Nordblom Co. sees additional opportunities for lab conversions within the 1.1 million-square-foot Network Drive at Northwest Park, which counts only a handful of current life science tenants, Galletta said. 

Another biotech-focused real estate model has already paid off for Nordblom and its partner Alcion Ventures at 60 Blanchard Road. Life science consultants Azzur Group leased the 50,300-square-foot facility for its sixth Cleanrooms on Demand facility, offering pre-built suites to biopharma companies to accelerate their early-space manufacturing. Moderna promptly leased 75 percent of the facility in mid-2021. 

The Burlington location augments Azzur Group’s initial Massachusetts facility which opened in 2018 in Waltham, and is designed to meet growing demand from big pharma clients and early-stage companies alike, spokeswoman Katie Brown said. The labs are typically ready for occupancy within three months, and the Burlington facility currently has three cleanrooms, which average 760 square feet, still available. 

“We absolutely needed to expand and we looked at Burlington basically as an extension of that Cambridge area. We want to be where our customers are,” Brown said. 

‘Dynamic’ Growth-Stage Firms Wanted 

Two dozen biotech, medical tech, biomanufacturing and health care companies call Burlington home, according data compiled by the town’s economic development office. Burlington officials sought to make commercial properties more suitable for life science conversions last year by enacting fast-track zoning approvals and higher densities for a 150-acre “Innovation District” near Route 128. 

“It’s great to have the anchor institutions, but the smaller, growing ones are much more dynamic and willing to collaborate with other companies,” said Melisa Tintocalis, Burlington’s economic development coordinator. 

At the Boston Marriott Burlington hotel property at 1 Burlington Mall Road, Boston-based Pyramid Hotel Group is proposing a 96,000-square-foot life science building on a portion of the parking lot. 

And Hudson Bay Co. has filed plans to convert the vacant former Lord & Taylor anchor store at the Burlington Mall into a 120,000-square-foot lab building. 

Neighbor Sought for EMDMillipore Campus 

EMDMillipore’s decision to consolidate 900 Greater Boston employees’ workspace in a new, 280,000-square-foot build-to-suit campus that opened in 2017 on Summit Road gave Burlington a high-profile industry anchor. To expand the life science cluster, Burlington and town officials have sought to provide options for smaller firms in growth mode. 

That was Burlington-based Gutierrez Cos.’ strategy when it added lab infrastructure to a vacant new office building at 4 Burlington Woods Drive, later rebranded as Burlington BioCenter. In less than 12 months, Gutierrez Cos. leased the entire 110,000-square-foot facility to biotechs Ultivue, Protagene and CANbridge. Rare disease researcher CANbridge is expanding its research staff to 92 employees at the new 24,500-square-foot headquarters after relocating from Cambridge in June. The facility also will include lab space in a partnership with the Horae Gene Therapy Center at the UMass Chan Medical School.  

Next-door to Burlington BioCenter, San Francisco-based GI Partners acquired a neighboring office building at 3 Burlington Woods Drive for $58.1 million in February and is proposing a 160,000-square-foot lab conversion. 

Steve Adams

And a 291,000-square-foot office-to-lab conversion is scheduled for completion in spring 2023 at 3 Van De Graaff Drive by Quincy-based Jumbo Capital. 

Scott Weiss, Gutierrez Cos.’ vice president of development, said the firm is expanding its bet on Burlington biotech growth with two upcoming projects. 

Gutierrez Cos. is converting the 110,000-square-foot 10 Corporate Drive office building into lab space scheduled for tenant fit-outs in late 2022. 

And an approved 250,000-square-foot lab development pad at 300 Summit Drive, next to the EMDMillipore campus, could break ground speculatively late this year, Weiss said. The firm is keeping a close eye on inflation and construction costs, but is optimistic that continuing tenant demand will translate into higher rents. 

“It’s making it far more challenging with supply chain issues and the cost of labor and materials, but we think there’s still a market need, and therefore there will be interest by tenants to absorb the additional costs,” Weiss said. 

Burlington Plants a Biotech Flag

by Steve Adams time to read: 4 min