Talent Competition and the Allure of Creative Lab Space; Ping Pong Optional?

May 2011
T3 Advisors

To varying degrees over the years, the itch for earlier stage technology companies to identify unique or “soulful” space has persisted through even the darkest of economic days.   Those strongly convinced the type of space they inhabit impacts company culture and success have undertaken some very creative endeavors to deliver functional and playful working environments from seemingly hopeless space availabilities.  Some of the best space we’ve seen has been the result of company leaders channeling their entrepreneurial spirit into turning borderline warehouse space into something that resembles Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium (if you’re going to see ONE movie this year, run – don’t walk – to MMWE.  Makes Portman’s “Black Swan” performance look like “Black Yawn”.  Zing!)

I keep hearing about this talent war for developers declared in Boston, primarily declared by Cambridge’s own HubspotDharmesh Shah posted a blog on the matter, also championing working with Hubspot by offering “office space for humans” and ping pong table access (the latter tongue-in-cheek but still…) as 2 reasons of many to work for Hubspot.   I’ve seen their space.  I think there was a company aerobics class going on next to the conference room I was in.  Ambitious.Ping_pong_1

So I started thinking about lab users and trying to recall any recent conversations I’ve had with clients who were concerned beyond the old “Cambridge versus suburbs” question about recruiting and how space will affect their search for top level scientists and employees.  Naturally, the Genzymes and Novartis’ of the world with their vast resources can manipulate huge buildings to include some spaces that are non-core to R&D and can cater more to employee enjoyment in the workplace.  Genzyme’s Kendall building looks sort of like the Emerald City to me, frankly, and their onsite amenities are pretty sweet.  But for the life science company competing for talent on reasonable budget, is there any room to make a statement with space?

I asked Kevin Starr, managing partner at Third Rock Ventures, if any of their portfolio companies have undertaken these initiatives.  From its founding, TRV set out to establish a company culture that reflected their ideals and used their space as one way to do it.  Using a 2,000 square foot former Rolling Stone magazine office as a starting point, they eventually spread over three floors of their Newbury Street building, creatively configuring it with a mix of glamor and playfulness (bean bag conference room, anyone?)
bean-bag-1people associate specifically with how Third Rock promotes itself as a venture partner.  Asked about whether their portfolio companies strive for similar identity without busting the budget, Kevin said:

“Most of our companies do lots of cool things with their space to make their companies unique, fun and productive.  Agios Pharmaceuticals is in the middle of re-finishing their new space.  They will have an inspirational wall as you enter – it is an enormous space filled with pictures of relatives of employees that have passed or have been impacted by cancer.  It gives a great feeling of purpose for everyone who comes in and a daily reminder of ‘this is why we work so hard!!’”

That’s a powerful yet cost effective way to use space to reflect identity and drive employee morale.  It then begs the question, when your work is so critical to social welfare, does that passion and singular focus ease the burden of needing space frills to bring in the best people?

Lauren Celano of Propel Careers, a recruitment firm focused on the life sciences sector, believes, to a certain degree, yes.  “Passion and personal attachment to a particular therapy target can play a huge role in attracting talent to a company.  While recruitment incentives may be thought necessary for a company developing an application for an iPhone, a prospective employee with the passion to work as cutting edge oncology research may be less likely to require bells and whistles in a working environment.”
Banner, Robert Bruce_1So maybe, surely with exceptions, functionality and company research missions can act as the primary drivers for recruiting in talent in life sciences.  I asked around to quite a few more people and nobody jumped up and down saying lab occupants are trying to be drastically more innovative on their spaces, outside of the creative use of colors and natural light, where possible.  I saw this firsthand the other day walking through Aileron Therapeutics’ space on Albany Street in the Cambridgeport sub-market.  They built out an old Alkermes manufacturing facility with some cool, collaborative perimeter office that stilled allowed natural light to get to the interior labs.  I have to admit, the space “popped”.
FrankensteinThat said, I am a little disappointed no one has decided to take it to the next level.  If I’m building a lab, I’m making it look like something out of a Marvel comic book.  Labs are the quintessential birthplaces of mutants and super villains.  Embrace it.  I want random buckets labeled “toxic waste”, life-sized latex likenesses of Bruce Banner and Frankenstein, lightning flashes and thunder sounds effects, and a constant supply of ankle-high fog wafting through the labs.  Sure, each of these represents a gross safety hazard but think of the talent you’d attract.  I’d work there in a heartbeat.

Actually, maybe that’s not the best endorsement.  20070625181919_Toxic Waste Barrel [640x480]