Avid moves, but stays in Philadelphia

Thirty years ago, a start-up biotechnology company set up labs in the University City Science Center to be close to the Wistar Institute, from which it had licensed monoclonal antibody technology.

But the allure of such proximity wasn’t strong enough to keep Centocor Inc. in West Philadelphia for long. Within three years, it had moved its labs and 70 employees to a 30,000-square-foot building in Malvern.

It’s a pattern that’s been repeated many times as companies start in the science center’s business incubator only to leave for cheaper, bigger space in the suburbs.

Last week, one firm bucked the trend. Having outgrown its 5,000 square feet at the science center, Avid Radiopharmaceuticals Inc. made its move - across Market Street.

Avid and its 37 employees are now in 16,000 square feet of office and lab space at 3711 Market St., the newest building in the science center’s research park.

Avid CEO Daniel M. Skovronsky looked at suburban labs, but remained urban for three reasons: He wanted to be near the University of Pennsylvania campus, where he’d worked before founding Avid in 2005. The location is easily accessible for employees. And he likes his landlord.

Like so many businesspeople before, Skovronsky cited the wage tax as perhaps the biggest drawback to staying in the city. And the commute from the suburbs can be a bear sometimes.

But overall, West Philadelphia is where Avid wants to be as it pursues Phase III clinical trials of a radioactive compound that lights up plaque in the brain to help diagnose Alzheimer’s disease. Avid hopes to complete that late-stage testing early next year.

Drug companies usually head for the suburbs because there simply hasn’t been the kind of lab space they need in the city. That’s something the science center is trying to change, said its president and CEO, Stephen S. Tang.

“Our vision has been West Philadelphia, the University City part, should be more like Cambridge, Mass., and Mission Bay, San Francisco,” said Tang, mentioning two tech-business magnets.

Philadelphia is a long way from such critical mass. But perhaps a bit of karma was involved. After all, Avid had occupied Centocor’s original incubator space. As successful as what is now Centocor Ortho Biotech has become, we’ll see what destiny has in store for Avid.