Blow to biotech cluster

SARANAC LAKE – The village’s biotech cluster will soon have a big chink.

One of the two for-profit biotech companies village officials lured to Saranac Lake with great fanfare three years ago is relocating.

Myriad RBM, located in the former village offices at 3 Main St., will move its 32-employee local operation to its headquarters in Austin, Texas, by the end of March, the Enterprise learned Monday.

Dominic Eisinger, Myriad RBM’s director of strategic development and the manager of the company’s local site, didn’t return multiple phone messages about the move, but village Mayor Clyde Rabideau confirmed it on his Facebook page Monday evening.

“This is startling and unexpected news and the village board will do all it can to first keep the company here in Saranac Lake,” Rabideau wrote.

The news was also a surprise to the employees of the other biotech company the village brought to Main Street, Active Motif, located across the Lake Flower dam in the former village Water Department building.

“I had no idea at all,” said Laura Carpenter, Active Motif’s research and development manager. “For us, it’s a big shock. One person in my office was very upset because one of her really good friends lost her job. And for the community, given the excitement about our transition into the area and having the science base and the growth, I think it’s a real blow to the science and to the community itself.”

Background

Myriad RBM develops and manufactures tests for use in biological or medical research, and for companies involved in drug discovery and development. It was launched in 2006 by Eisinger and other former employees of Upstate Biotechnology in Lake Placid and was originally called Multiplex Biosciences. It later merged with Rules-Based Medicine, or RBM, which in April 2011 was bought by Myriad Genetics.

The village worked quietly for more than a year to bring Myriad RBM and Active Motif to Saranac Lake. As part of the deal, which was announced in June 2011, the village relocated its operations to the second floor of the Harrietstown Town Hall and spent $780,000 to renovate its three-story former office building for Myriad. The company, which then had 24 employees, moved into the building in August 2012. It was welcomed with a celebration in Riverside Park that featured live music and root beer floats and drew a crowd of 125 people.

“We did it,” Rabideau told the crowd that day. “We brought in a new private enterprise company with growth potential here to Saranac Lake. It hasn’t been done in generations.”

Village officials have said the presence of the two biotechs, along with Trudeau Institute and Bionique Testing Laboratories in the town of Harrietstown’s Lake Clear business park, creates a budding biotech cluster in the Saranac Lake area that they hoped would attract similar companies to the community. Two years ago, the village won a statewide economic development award from the New York Conference of Mayors for its biotech cluster building effort.

Corporate decision

Rabideau told the Enterprise in a phone interview this morning that Myriad’s plan to shut down the Saranac Lake site was a corporate decision.

“They’re based in Austin, Texas. This was the second buyout in the last four or five years,” he said. “Reportedly they want to consolidate their operations there, and I can understand the reasons for that, but let’s investigate and see if there are any opportunities for us to retain this very important company in our biotech cluster.”

Scott Paschke, who worked for Active Motif until earlier this year, also said he was shocked to hear about the move. He said he doesn’t think Myriad’s planned departure from Saranac Lake is a reflection of the local branch’s performance.

“I think it was a pure business decision,” he said. “I don’t think it has anything to do with the viability of biotech or the workers. These are all people who really knew a lot of what they’re doing.”

“It always looked like they were growing and expanding,” Carpenter said. “I think this is a consequence of a bigger dynamic. They’re owned by a very big business that’s a worldwide business and a publicly traded company. It’s certainly a concern for any business that’s part of a company where the headquarters is somewhere else. For those of us who want to live here and create the balance we want, that’s a risk that we take.”

Carpenter compared it to what happened when Upstate Biotechnology, which started as the W. Alton Jones Cell Science Center, was bought and swallowed up by outside companies, first Serologicals and then Millipore. Carpenter said her company, which started as Lake Placid Biologicals, is now owned by Carlsbad, California-based Active Motif, although she said it’s a much smaller company than Myriad RBM.

Asked how business is for Active Motif, Carpenter said the company is holding steady but hasn’t grown much in the last few years. It currently has seven employees, one fewer than when it relocated to Saranac Lake.

Ronald Goldfarb, president, director and CEO of Trudeau Institute, said the institute was “disappointed to learn of the departure of Myriad RBM as we have a number of interactions with the organization.

“It is disappointing to see any movement out of the area by any biotech company,” Goldfarb said in an email. “Nevertheless, I am confident that the exciting work at Trudeau Institute and its partner Clarkson University will continue to attract additional biotech companies to the area. In fact, we are negotiating with two out-of-state companies at this time to help attract them to Saranac Lake.”

Now what?

Rabideau said the village will put together a task force to visit Myriad’s corporate headquarters and make the case that the company should keep the Saranac Lake site.

“We’ve got to find out why they’re leaving and see if there’s any way to mitigate those reasons,” he said. “We also want to find out if there’s any way we can entice them to stay.”

If Myriad goes, Rabideau said the village has talked with a principal of the company’s local branch who is interested in “subcontracting” from the parent company in Texas, and maintaining jobs here in Saranac Lake. He wrote on his Facebook page that the village has “pledged financial commitment to this person from our grant funds given to us for this purpose.”

Rabideau said the village is also in talks with other biotech businesses interested in locating in Saranac Lake primarily due to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Start-Up New York initiative of tax breaks and incentives.

Myriad RBM has been paying the village $70,000 a year under a five-year lease it signed with the village.

“The lease commitment is through 2017, so there’s plenty of opportunities to use it as an incubator space for other biotechs or nascent businesses in Saranac Lake,” Rabideau told the Enterprise.