After two decades of success, Fitzsimons Innovation Community plots an even bigger bioscience footprint

DBJ article2

After two decades of success, Fitzsimons Innovation Community plots an even bigger bioscience footprint

Feb 27, 2020, 8:06am MST


Chris Johnson, scientist at Machavert, works with injections at the Fitzsimons Innovation Community.

When Robin Shandas was teaching in Boulder, he often ran into a problem.

As head of the University of Colorado’s bioengineering department, he found that being in Boulder made it difficult to collaborate.

“Boulder is not that far away, but to get a clinical colleague to come to Boulder to teach would be very difficult,” Shandas told Denver Business Journal. “If they did that, they would have to give up a half day of revenue by not seeing patients.”

That situation changed markedly, however, when the bioengineering department moved across the street from the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.

“The way we set up, they can see patients, then walk across the street to teach students, then walk back to the clinic,” Shandas said. “That type of experience, there’s not that many places around the country with that level of access.”

That place across the street from Anschutz that offered Shandas — and many other companies — ease in proximity and collaboration is Fitzsimmons Innovation Community.

Formed 21 years ago to be a launching place for startups born out of research done at the medical school, Fitzsimons has since grown to be one of Colorado’s great hubs for bioscience companies. The construction of new building Bioscience 3 — focused on growth-stage, life-science companies, some of which started and outgrew from Fitzsimons’ other buildings — marks a new chapter in the living and research community. And it could mean a new chapter for Colorado bioscience research and commercialization.

A rich past

Fitzsimons — now with its laboratory-filled buildings and on-campus apartment buildings — was originally created in 1918 as an Army hospital. But in the 1990s, the Base Realignment and Closure Act impacted it and Lowry Air Force Base. The Army post was split into two parcels. On the south side lives the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, which included the School of Nursing, School of Dentistry, School of Public Health, School of Pharmacy and School of Medicine.

“On the north side, they said, ‘Well let’s build a biotech park. Let’s put everything together regarding medicine on a single campus,’” Fitzsimons CEO Steve VanNurden told DBJ. The result was the Fitzsimons Bioscience Innovation Community, a partnership between the City of Aurora and the University of Colorado.

The intent was to create a place where startup companies in the state could advance their research and begin commercialization. The partnership with the university meant Fitzsimons was particularly attractive for companies born out of research done at Anschutz.

In the last 20-plus years, the community has grown to include buildings with labs and manufacturing space, but also apartment complexes and restaurants. There are now 77 companies housed at Fitzsimons.

“When the Army closed, there were 5,000 people that lost their jobs,” said VanNurden. “Today, there are more than 25,000 people that come to work every day in one square mile. And there’s nothing we can’t do in medicine on this campus.”

Location is everything

That quest for limitless capabilities has led to Fitzsimons’ latest phase. The companies that first found a home in Fitzsimons’ first two corporate buildings — Bioscience 1 and 2 — are now turning into growth-stage companies. They need room to grow, and the answer is Bioscience 3.

Although construction is not yet complete, Bioscience 3 already has tenants. One of those is the CU Center for Surgical Innovation.

CSI started across the street on campus, but as it grew it needed to develop a larger lab that could accommodate more people, said Sarah Massena, business director for CSI. In 2015, it moved into 4,500 square feet in Bioscience 1.

“We have very quickly grown out of that lab, because the demand for people who want to train with us has increased a lot,” Massena said. “We were in talks with Fitzsimons Innovation Community to find the best fit for us. There was no real opportunity to move back to the medical campus. The best fit was for us to stay in the Fitzsimons community.”

The decision was made to move into Bioscience 3, with a new lab twice the size of its Bioscience 1 space. CSI is an educational environment for health-care professionals, where medical staff can come in and train on the best practices for surgical procedures. Each year, more than 4,500 people from all over the world visit CSI’s location at Fitzsimons to practice and innovate new techniques.

Another Bioscience 3 tenant is Machavert, a company that is developing a cancer treatment from scratch and moved into Bioscience 1 five years ago. The company was looking at moving to Colorado and selected Fitzsimons based on its proximity to Anschutz, CEO Jakub Staszak-Jirkovsky told DBJ.

“We chose this place for that reason,” he said. “Today, our most advanced and promising project has been developed at Anschutz.”

Stop, collaborate and listen

Both CSI and Machavert are emblematic of what Fitzsimons is about: collaboration.

“We have interesting conversations, walking in the hall talking with other tenants in the building,” Massena said. “Some people will be visiting and want to see what we’re doing.”

In fact, CSI’s new Bioscience 3 lab will include a viewing room for those who want to see what the center is working on.

“There are so many partnerships and collaborations that can happen on Fitzsimons that were not happening at the school of medicine,” she said. “We’re in such close proximity to each other. It’s not just having physicians, but nursing Ph.D.s who are physicians, nurses with backgrounds in innovation, lots of engineers. It’s a think tank for everyone to come together, collaborate and come up with new ideas.”

Massena said she thinks Bioscience 3 is critical to growing that collaboration, by providing a more mature space for companies that are out of the startup stage and into the growth stage of scaling a company.

Robin Shandas said that University of Colorado’s bioengineering department, which is based in Bioscience 2, is also moving into Bioscience 3.

“Bioscience 3 represents the continuing growth and expansion of our program,” Shandas said.

Furthering Colorado’s story

Bioscience 3 is not only key for growth and collaboration for companies, but it can be the key for growing Colorado bioscience as a whole.

Besides the Boulder area and Colorado State University, Staszak-Jirkovsky said that he considers Fitzsimons to be one of the major hubs for bioscience in Colorado.

The Colorado Bioscience Association agrees, calling Fitzsimons one of its valued and sustaining partners.

“I would say Fitzsimons is a very important community in Colorado with the space and services they have,” said Jennifer Jones Paton, CEO of CBSA.

She said Fitzsimons is a “differentiator” for Colorado, because of its unique ability allow entrepreneurs to work alongside physicians and researchers at Anschutz.

“I would say that the relationship with Anschutz is helpful,” she said. “Being in the immediate vicinity of world-class medical partners is an opportunity to tenants and researchers to have a close connection.”

Indeed, while there are many incubators in Colorado, Fitzsimons aims to be more than that. There aren’t cohorts and set programming.. The collaboration and networking is critical.

“Our idea is that you onboard them in partnership, and that you hold on to that relationship and you continue to develop those networks and those strategic priorities with them,” said April Giles, vice president of business development, of the companies that join Fitzsimons. “You make connections across our community to be able to facilitate their overall growth. And we keep them here for the long term.”

Now, with its expansion, Fitzsimons can move that model forward. Paton said she believes the construction of Bioscience 3 is big news for the state.

“It furthers the story we tell: that Colorado is a great place to live and work in life sciences,” she said. “It’s a collaborative environment that supports the life sciences.” The hope, she added, is that Fitzsimons will attract out-of-state and international companies to also come to Colorado, which is made all the more likely by Fitzsimons on-site living opportunities and proximity to Denver International Airport.

“It puts Colorado even that much further on the radar,” Paton said.

What is more, Fitzsimons already has plans for Bioscience 4 — an additional building for growth-stage companies — and Bioscience 5 — a building specifically for immunotherapy and gene-therapy innovation.

With what Fitzsimons is currently doing and what it has planned for its future, Paton said the Innovation Community is sealed as a nexus for bioscience in Colorado.

“We will continue to see Fitzsimons, Anschutz and that hub growing,” she said. “Fitzsimons is very intentional with its growth and responding to what it hears the needs are. That intentional growth is appreciated and valued.”

Jensen Werley


Denver Business Journal