This Incubator is Tackling “Tough Tech”: An Interview with The Engine

By Zareh Zurabyan 7 min read 14 Mar 2024

There was a time not too long ago when the only biotech incubators out there were LabCentral and BioLabs.

But a lot has changed. The life science industry, including big pharma, has become more flexible, allowing young, ambitious, and innovative companies to flourish and grow. Incubators have been pivotal in creating this thriving ecosystem, and there are hundreds of facilities and coworking spaces that cater to the unique needs of biotech startups, including  SmartLabs, CIC, Alexandria LaunchLabs, Harvard Innovations Lab, Greentown Labs to InnoLabs, Cure Innovations Lab, MBI, and more. Large pharma has done the same with Bayer’s Co.Lab, BMS’s Thomas O. Daniel research incubator and collaboration center, and J&J’s JLABS.

With so many players in the biotech incubation scene, it can be challenging for newcomers to distinguish themselves. That said, one incubator that spun out of MIT, The Engine, has experienced significant success by focusing its efforts on companies in the “Tough Tech” industry. In this area, cutting-edge science is deployed to solve the world’s most significant problems. This niche concentration has enabled The Engine to attract and nurture some of the most fascinating disruptors in the industry, all under a single roof.

To get a glimpse “under the hood” of The Engine, I sat down with their Business Development Manager and hardcore Boston Celtics fan, Hayden McFarlane, to learn more about what makes them unique and how they foster the next generation of Tough Tech disruptors. 

Q: What is the difference between a traditional biotech coworking space and The Engine accelerator? What makes The Engine special and unique?

A: At The Engine Accelerator, we focus on being the home of  “Tough Tech”. This is reflected in how we’ve structured our spaces, where we have 3D printing labs, electronics labs, machine shops, dry lab spaces, as well as BSL-2 biology and chemistry labs.

What makes us different is that we sit at the convergence of Science and Engineering. This means that teams could be in the labs pipetting in the morning, then in our fabrication space doing 3D printing over lunch, and by afternoon, they’re fabricating prototypes with our Super Mini Mill.

The machine room is a shared space with 3D printers, allowing companies to reserve equipment time for creating necessary pieces without outsourcing or investing in rarely used equipment.

Discover the cutting-edge world of Tough Tech as we delve into an insightful interview with The Engine, an incubator that's reshaping the landscape of biotech startups.

The Engine comprises biology and chemistry labs, along with a range of shared lab spaces and lab suites available for rent. These facilities are equipped with diverse equipment to meet the research needs of various companies.

Q: Why would a young start-up want to be part of an incubator instead of getting their own lab/office space?

A: It boils down to making the most of your money early in your Tough Tech journey. As a true accelerator, we provide equipment, permitting, utilities, facilities, etc. This makes it easier for the startup to concentrate on de-risking their science or tech as quickly as possible.

Q: Is there a limit to how long a company can remain at The Engine or how big their group can get?

A: We built the space with the growth of our residents in mind. Teams can lease a single wet lab bench and grow into a private 60-bench lab over their growth cycle. Because of this, we do not impose time limits. Part of the rationale behind that is that we are operating in the Tough Tech world, where teams are tackling the toughest challenges in the world. It’s impossible to put a time limit on when a company will solve something like that.

Q: How did the pandemic shape the incubator business model generally and The Engine’s culture specifically?

A: Teams are now more interested in the hybrid model and letting staff work from home when they can. Obviously, that’s impossible for lab workers, and with that in mind, we structured our building to be 66% lab space so if another pandemic were to hit, our most usable space would still be in play.

Q: What are the top 5 industries or sciences represented at The Engine, and is there a particular type of resident you’re looking for?

A: Climate change, human health, and advanced systems and infrastructure are the primary 3 industries our residents work in. We have some residents who work in food or agri-tech, but they have some overlap with climate change and human health. We typically search for founders whose breakthroughs will make impactful changes in society and those who may disrupt their industry over the next 30-plus years.

Q: So you are looking for industry disruptors! What defines a disruptor, and how does The Engine ecosystem promote or support this?

A: A disruptor is typically the founder with industry-changing ideas. It’s easy to focus on the tech, but the person driving the tech and the team behind it is the disruptor. We find the disruptors through various onsite programming, including our Blueprint Program aimed at postdocs and research scientists who have developed great ideas. We have created a massive ecosystem over the last 7 years that tends to attract these types of founders. The Engine Accelerator’s infrastructure, programs, and network uniquely help disruptive founders bridge the gap from their breakthrough to commercial viability and scale. 

Q: What is Tough Tech? How does it differ from biotech, and how will it transform the industry and the world?

A: Tough Tech is a transformational technology that will change the world for the better but requires time and complex solutions to reach commercial viability, potentially spanning the course of years or even decades. Things like fusion energy, carbon capture, battery tech, cell therapies, quantum computing, and so much more. All of these things will help slow down some of the global issues, such as climate change, we are collectively dealing with.

Q: What are the challenges in running The Engine?

A: I think one of the biggest challenges is raising awareness about what The Engine offers. Many people mistakenly think you have to come from MIT or be invested in by The Engine Ventures to be part of it. However, 750 Main St is a home for ALL tough tech founders. Additionally, teams need to move quickly but with precision. Often, the infrastructure needs they had when they moved in have changed. We work with teams to ensure they can effectively scale their operations without losing time or capital.

Q: What is the screening process for new residents like?

A: We have a process for evaluating if a team is truly a “Tough Tech” project, and from there, it’s a relatively streamlined process of EHS forms, etc. The process starts with filling out our Space Inquiry Form and can take 2 -6 weeks for our team to review and get the company into the space, depending on the team’s infrastructure needs.

Q: In 3 words, how would you describe The Engine?

A: Three words is an injustice for a place that houses 90+ teams working on world-changing technologies! But I would say – Inspiring, Dynamic, & Transformative.

Q: How should people get in touch with The Engine if they want to take space here?

A: They can apply on the website www.engine.xyz or email me at hayden@engine.xyz.

The Factors that Keep The Engine Running

I’ve spent countless hours at The Engine for panel discussions, fun events, informative demonstrations, training, or pitching, and 3 unique threads make it such a special place!

First, the infrastructure, interior design, and architecture perfectly balance privacy and collaboration. You can isolate yourself, concentrate and power through complex projects, and at the same time, find a moment to brainstorm with colleagues and other companies to extract a deeper understanding of your tasks.

Second, the ecosystem is genuinely inspiring due to the extremely high application standards, which attract some of the most fascinating companies and talents into the space. See what it means to “Turn tough tech breakthroughs into Tough Tech startups” here.

Finally, the access to instruments and digital technologies and support from the staff make The Engine a valuable place for startups. The Engine stands out in the bustling world of biotech incubators by embracing ‘Tough Tech’ and providing a dynamic space where disruptive ideas and groundbreaking science collide, all in an inspiring, dynamic, and transformative ecosystem.

eLabNext is proud to partner with The Engine. Our collaboration underscores our commitment to supporting innovative startups as they navigate the challenges of launching their ventures. Together, we’ve worked closely to ensure that startups have access to the tools, resources, and expertise they need to succeed, fostering an environment where ambitious entrepreneurs can thrive.

To learn more, visit engine.xyz.

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