The Evolution of Life Sciences Research Districts
How Knowledge Economies Are Redefining the Industry
Life Sciences Research Districts

20 years ago, research districts and science parks once consisted of standalone buildings located far from the city center, creating a disconnect from the human element. At the time, they were the ideal buildings for research.

However, shifts in the workplace driven by the "open source" model influenced the desire to share ideas, cross-collaborate, and work in locations offering a live-work-play environment. Workers soon began seeking job opportunities in more accessible locations offering a neighborhood feel and the opportunity to connect and collaborate with people in their field, including those who work for different organizations.

Rising competition in the life sciences industry, paired with struggles to attract and retain employees and researchers, pushed organizations to reevaluate their facility designs. Organizations realized they needed facilities in less isolated location, offering the amenities and collaborative environment preferred by students, researchers, and the modern workforce.

"There is a convergence of technology and various sciences," says Brent Webb, a development executive at Mortenson. "Additionally, there's pressure within the industry to recruit and successfully retain top talent. That's why universities, academic medical centers and real estate developers are investing in innovation communities. They create a concentration of brilliant people creating new technologies and therapies, in a highly collaborative community environment."

Modern Convenience Meets Innovation

The goal of life sciences research districts is to create a vibrant live-work-play environment in proximity to an academic institution or medical facility. Districts act as neighborhoods within a city, complete with apartments and condos, coffee shops, restaurants, retail options, green space, and public transportation access. Designs focus on creating connectivity within the research district and surrounding community, unlike the isolated building models of the past.

"The only way innovation districts can be successful is if you have an anchor institution and support from the city or state." says Brent. "Institutions often can't do it alone because of the substantial investment involved. They also need support in recruiting businesses and people." Businesses are investing more in life sciences, and institutional real estate investors recognize the value these research districts bring to communities through jobs and revenue.

He explains by saying, "when you're trying to recruit students and the caliber of academic leaders that research universities seek, you have to do more than offer higher salaries or be in a major city. The people qualified for these high-demand jobs can go anywhere, so you need to offer them a complete living experience."

Trends Driving Research District Construction

With urban space limited in certain regions of the U.S., organizations sometimes need to build farther from the city center. The success of life sciences research districts relies on more than location—it's more important to have the right design and infrastructure plan.

Mixed-Use Facilities with Collaborative Spaces

Incorporating mixed-use tenant spaces brings together people with different backgrounds, experiences and technologies. Shared workspaces, work/lounge areas, and other shared building amenities encourage collaboration and provide a place for people to gather and share ideas.

Support for Complex Mechanical Infrastructures

Whether you're renovating an existing structure or building new, it's critical to have the right design and structural support for life sciences processes and specialty equipment.

MEP design plans account for complexity and include redundancies for electricity, plumbing, and ventilation to support expansion as space needs change. Spaces might also need to meet stringent filtration and ventilation requirements for R&D, pharmaceutical production, and medical manufacturing. Biosafety is also considered in the design plan.

Adaptability for Future Growth

In an industry where technology is ever evolving, spaces are built flexible enough to adapt to constantly changing needs: lab/testing, pharmaceutical manufacturing, medical device manufacturing, etc. Including cleanroom spaces, wet labs, and dry labs help cater to varying tenant needs within your life sciences research district.

Amenities and Transportation Access

The success of a life sciences research district relies on the live-work-play model. Creating a neighborhood feel attracts business and its employees, and draws local traffic (revenue) to the area outside of business hours. Public transportation access is another critical component included in district planning.

Commitment to Sustainability

Energy efficiency and reduced water consumption are now focus areas as organizations try shifting to more sustainable models. LEED certification is a growing trend in life sciences, though more complex due to the processes and resulting waste involved in lab, pharmaceutical, and healthcare environments.

Profile: Discovery Square and Destination Medical Center

Like many others in the research space, Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, was losing talent to other academic institutions. Aware of the growing life sciences research district trend, they planned to build Discovery Square as an investment in the organization's future.

Discovery Square is one of six sub-districts making up Rochester's Destination Medical Center (DMC), a 20-year economic initiative to create a global destination for health and wellness. Together, the sub-districts will eventually create a life sciences research district with medical and research facilities, recreation and entertainment, green spaces, learning environments, hospitality and convention centers, housing, entertainment, and transit.

Mayo Clinic currently has two buildings in the district. One Discovery Square, completed in 2019, is a bioscience facility that creates a collaborative space for tenants ranging from start-ups to established corporations. The second phase, Two Discovery Square, lies adjacent to the first phase and offers biomedical manufacturing space and flexible, collaborative environments.

There are also plans to develop life sciences research districts near its existing facilities in Phoenix, Arizona, and Jacksonville, Florida. Organizations and institutions worldwide are following a similar path to ensure they remain competitive.

Research Districts Are Here to Stay

The innovation district model isn't going anywhere. In fact, other industries, from sports to technology, are adapting similar live-work-play models to remain competitive. "If institutions don't start thinking about a life sciences research district model, they're going to fall behind," says Brent. "Other systems and universities are either doing it already or trying to figure out a plan. It's that critical."

The intricacies of developing a life sciences research district requires a long-term plan spanning across 20-30 years. Site selection, zoning restrictions, and a multitude of other factors come into play, requiring careful planning with the right partners at the table.

"Looking at successful districts can help organizations identify a strategy, but it's important to remember that every situation and location is different," says Brent. "What worked for someone else might not work for your organization and community. However, you can learn from what went well in those situations, and what didn't, to help put your project on the right track for long-term success."


Brent Webb

Brent Webb is a development executive focused on advancing and originating new development projects in Minnesota, Iowa, and the Dakotas. He is active in several community and real estate organizations and regularly participates in panel discussions for the life sciences market.

Innovation in Life Sciences Construction

Mortenson is a Minneapolis-based construction company serving life sciences customers nationwide. We view each real estate development project as a partnership focused on helping you push the boundaries of possibility to meet your business goals.



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