Spotlight: Explora BioLabs — Powering Your Science

Explora BioLabs provides preclinical, AAALAC-accredited vivarium space and related services to clients of all sizes and in all stages of development. With 150,000 square feet of space across 11 locations in biotech-dense communities, the company prides itself on providing clients the ability to initiate preclinical in vivo programs in as little as two weeks, with proper husbandry management and crucial regulatory oversight.

Big4Bio Editor, Marie Daghlian, recently spoke with Explora CEO, Nathaniel “Sandy” Paige, about Explora’s beginnings, its Vivarium-as-a-Service solutions, and how it can help streamline early-stage preclinical research.

B4B: Hi, Sandy. Let’s start at the beginning—how did Explora Biolabs start?

Explora CEO, Sandy Paige

Sandy: Explora was founded almost 16 years ago in San Diego by a Berkeley-educated Ph. D., Dr. Richard Lin. At the time, he was working at a small biotech and needed preclinical research space, but he didn’t want to depend on a CRO, nor could he find a clean, affordable stand-alone vivarium. As a side but relevant note, the CRO option prevented him from doing the work himself, with his expertise. That’s an important piece of it. Upon finding a local vivarium, he initially subleased a single room, but quickly ended up inheriting the entire vivarium lease. What he found was that there were plenty of his scientist peers in search of vivarium space themselves. Almost two decades later, the Vivarium-as-a-Service solution has turned out to be a pretty good one.

B4B: Why’s that?

His approach struck a chord with small biotechs. For many of them, outsourcing an entire study to an enormous CRO meant giving up too much control of the biotech’s intellectual property generation, in addition to having little-to-no control over timelines. These companies really wanted to do the work themselves quickly, and they wanted to be close to their animals.

B4B: Why do you think Explora’s vision is effective for biotechs?

Sandy: Explora BioLabs was founded on the thesis that some proportion of the small- to medium-size biotech ecosystem really wants to control its own research base. These biotechs don’t have the time, money, capital, or space to build a vivarium. A vivarium can cost more than $500 to $600 per square foot to build. If you’re already building out lab space that normally costs $150 to $200 per square foot, it’s very costly to stop and build a vivarium as well, which effectively cannot be expanded at a later time due to the nature of most in vivo studies.

If a company is VC financed, it’s a big mismatch to use that funding capital for real estate. For a lot of small biotechs, it makes more sense to just rent what they need now—it’s a more efficient use of time and money.

That’s what we mean about Explora when we say we power your science: “It’s your science, powered by Explora.” That’s our tagline. We provide the infrastructure, but it remains your science. We’ve trademarked the name “Vivarium-as-a-Service” and we were the first to do it this way.

B4B: What is a vivarium?

Sandy: It’s a special kind of lab that’s built just for the care and research associated with preclinical animal models. In our case, it’s just rodents—rats and mice. What makes a vivarium special is its cleanliness, its specially trained staff, ethical animal welfare, the HVAC system for handling air, and the overall redundancy in the electrical system that drives everything. You have to have a system of emergency power. All of those things cost a lot more than you would typically spend on lab space. A vivarium will have special rooms and racks that are built to carry cages, and there is adjacent lab space in which the animals can be surgically manipulated or treated with a testing compound before being moved back into their cages. You need to have a combination of vivarium space—housing space—and adjacent procedure space.

B4B: How do companies work with you?

Sandy: For the most part, a company will rent one to three rooms, and we provide the husbandry (the care and feeding of the animal), most of the vivarium equipment, and the regulatory construct under which they are set. When we have vacancies, it takes about two weeks to get most clients enrolled and on-study. The company will often hire their own specialized people to run their own studies.

B4B: It seems like that keeps the IP in the companies’ hands, because you have nothing to do with the actual research that is taking place. You’re simply providing the conditions and space for the company to do its lab work.

Sandy: That’s true. But it’s also fair to say that, increasingly, clients are asking for help, so we provide additional services to them such as dosing, clinical observations, and, in some cases, surgeries. Some clients need special expertise or extra coverage. If you’re a small biotech with only a few staff, sometimes you just need some extra help for a couple of months, and Explora can provide that support as well.

We have virtual companies in the portfolio, but we also have clients all the way up to major pharma companies. We have one major pharma in South San Francisco that has a two-year project focused on a particular therapeutic area. They don’t want to build a vivarium for just two years, so they’re using our vivarium. After two years, they’ll make a decision. As you can quickly pick up, the model works well for all sizes of companies.

B4B: What’s the advantage of having locations in biotech-dense communities?

Sandy: We have what we call a “5-to-10-minute rule” in terms of where we’re located relative to our clients. We try to give them a 5- to 10-minute walk, bike, or car ride at most. Ideally, it’s just an elevator ride to their animals. The truth is, the shorter the distance, the happier the clients are. Also, these smaller biotechs move around, and in San Diego and San Francisco we’ve built networks of vivaria, so as clients move their labs, as they grow and contract, the idea is that we’ll have a vivarium nearby so we can shift their research to follow them.

B4B: Where is Explora located?

Sandy: We’re headquartered in San Diego, and we have seven facilities in that area. We also have four locations in San Francisco: one in Mission Bay, two in South San Francisco, and one in Mountain View. We’re about to announce a fifth location in San Carlos.

B4B: The biotech ecosystem is growing rapidly. Does that mean a steady supply of clients for Explora?

Sandy: Yes. There are three types of “client of interest,” if you will. The first and most obvious are the biotech companies that contract for our services. The second are the venture capital firms that fund the biotechs. Increasingly, they’re taking an interest in making sure our facilities are in good locations near their clients. They see it as an inefficient use of venture capital for the companies they fund to build expensive real estate. What we’re hearing VCs say is, “We’ll give you the money, but make sure you are located near Explora,” essentially because they feel clients will start up faster, won’t waste money, and produce valuable animal data within a much shorter time period. The third client is the Life Sciences landlord who wants a competitive differentiator in his or her building. This is like an amenity in the building. A landlord might offer a gym, or a restaurant—those are helpful, but if they have a vivarium, that’s a real differentiator for their facility. The smart Life Sciences landlords are beginning to figure out that this is the direction that the market is going if they want to be taken seriously by biotechs—having Vivarium-as-a-Service in their building. We’re hoping to have an announcement in the next few months about opening multiple more vivaria in the San Francisco Bay regional market.

B4B: What’s happening now with Explora and COVID-19? Some companies have had to reduce their numbers of lab animals—they don’t have enough people to take care of them in response to social distancing mandates, as well as dealing with many suspended trials.

Sandy: Many of our clients have wound down non-essential studies, but we’ve continued to provide essential services to care for animals. Typically, at any one time, our clients have many ongoing studies, but they can usually control their cadence. At this time, most of them have wound down anything that is optional so the don’t have to come into the lab. If they have longitudinal studies or long-term studies in which they have millions of dollars invested in mice, those are certainly being tended to. That’s where Explora comes in: those animals need to be cared for and maintained. Very often, these studies are in the oncology space or aging space and they are still ongoing but don’t require much more than basic animal husbandry. We’re caring for the animals, and in some cases doing the little bit of work to keep those studies running.

We’ve changed our workflow in response to COVID-19 so that our employees are working largely alone, whenever possible. Working in a vivarium at a time like this is probably the best place to work because you are gowned up and masked, not working with other people, and everything is mostly sterile.

B4B: Are you having any problems with getting supplies?

Sandy: We have had some tightness with PPEs, as you might expect, because most of it is going to the healthcare workers, as it should. But we have enough supplies on-hand to maintain human and animal welfare.

A sponsor of Big4Bio, Explora BioLabs delivers professionally-managed, cost-effective, premium vivarium services, enabling pharma, biotech and leading academic researchers to accelerate their preclinical programs by virtualizing their pharmacology infrastructure. The company also provides custom-tailored discovery pharmacology services focusing on PK, non-GLP toxicology, oncology, metabolic diseases, wound healing and novel animal model development. More information