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Lab Be Nimble, Lab Be Quick

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Brad Stenger says Cogent’s lab design has improved with each unexpected move

The business plan hasn’t been written that says, “As we grow our core technology, we’ll be sure to relocate our entire organization three times before we’ve had three years in operation.” Yet that’s exactly what has happened to Cogent Neuroscience, a Durham, NC-based neurogenomics pioneer.

And maybe it’s not a bad idea. The experience has certainly contributed to organizational culture. “You know the velociraptor, the dinosaur?” CEO Max Wallace says, recalling the Jurassic Park mascot. “That’s how I see this company. It’s small, aggressive, fast-moving, and thinks on its feet.”

Founded in 1998 by Wallace and Duke neurobiologists Donald Lo (now CSO) and Lawrence Katz, Cogent first settled into a multi-tenant incubator whose owner, tobacco company Liggett & Myers, used the place for R&D. Cogent’s core technology — a single-cell model that permits gene inserts in functional nerve tissues — broke open the bottleneck preventing targeted and combinatorial genetic research on neurons.

In July 2000, Liggett wanted its labs back and asked tenants to vacate by October. Wallace and Lo saw the bright side. Two-thirds of their new 26,000-square-foot space was a single, open, lab-ready room — tabula rasa to reinvent Cogent. The senior execs called everything into question. What goes where, and why? Who should be next to whom? It could have been a crisis, but instead the experience galvanized the company.

Cogent was not in any position to be choosy when it took the space. It lacked conference and meeting rooms. To make do, couches were put between the entrance and the immense open lab. The buffer, while spacious, provides little cover for the vinyl lab flooring, a patternless grid with all the charm of graph paper. Wallace calls it the “Tile Prairie.” Nor does it dampen the buzz in the air — sometimes it’s the crackling intensity of talented interdisciplinary researchers; other times it’s just the omnipresent hum of noisy refrigerators.

Aware that landlord Duke University would reclaim the space in just eight months, Wallace and Lo jumped on the chance to take the second floor in a new building still being designed by Sam Hawk, the developer of their present business park.

To maintain Cogent’s nimble aura, Wallace turned to local consulting architect Ken Peterman. Going against the norm, Peterman designed original casework that a local metalworker is manufacturing. Traditional inflexible benchtops were replaced by flexible structures where work surfaces are popped in and out. To create the industrialized biology equivalent of an assembly line, pop out a casework unit and wheel in the heavy-duty lab automation equipment.

Other changes based on lessons learned: refrigerators are better in an adjacent room with automatic supermarket-esque doors; glassed-in meeting space keeps the “middle of the action” feel of the Tile Prairie without some of its distraction.

But then Cogent wants to make that point each time a visitor walks into the lobby. Lots of glass gives a good look into the action of the spacious main lab, where the exposed ceiling and sealed cement floor signal that this is industrial-type space for industrialized biology. A second large window just off the entrance will give the company’s data the same transparency. Max Wallace is confident it will wow potential investors. “If you want to be a billion dollar company,” he says, “you have to look like a billion dollar company.”

Brad Stenger is a freelance journalist who researches human-computer interaction in computational biology at the Georgia Institute of Technology, designs bioinformatic interfaces for Yale''s Gerstein Lab, and works as a laboratory planner for architectural firm CUH2A.

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