Eva Cramer has grand plans. Unbelievably grand, some might say. But the soft-spoken Cramer is not someone you want to bet against.
She's basically a one-woman biotech powerhouse: A scientist and professor, a vice president at SUNY-Downstate and the president of two nonprofits that run biotech centers. So far, she's raised $90 million, building a biotech incubator near Downstate’s own campus and convincing the International Aids Vaccine Initiative to move into the space she's renovated at the Brooklyn Army Terminal. Her incubator houses the top hepatitis C lab in the world, among others; each year her internship program gives dozens of kids the opportunity to work with elite scientists.
For now, I'm just trying to keep up as she gives me a tour. "This is going to be a beautiful urban park," says Cramer, waving toward an expanse of concrete. We look out toward the Statue of Liberty. "They're building a greenbelt, so you'll be able to ride your bike all along the river to get to work here." Cramer asks me if I know anyone who's giving grants to build urban parks. I don't. She moves on, unfazed.
"This is going to be a conference center," she says, pointing to an abandoned building where army tanks were once lifted off railroad cars and loaded onto ships bound for Europe. "People could stay here and come and work with our companies for a week." Wait, I think: What companies? Inside the terminal, she points at empty space and tells me about her plans for an upscale restaurant and a retail complex. Cramer is giddy with excitement. I have no doubt she really can see that restaurant, right there.
Next time I see Cramer, I'll probably be meeting people in the conference center and eating in the restaurant she's planning. But on this particular Friday, the Brooklyn Army Terminal is windy and mostly quiet, and it's the perfect place to talk about biotech, fundraising, and big, big dreams.
You’ve raised $90 million and built 62,000 square feet in lab and office space for young biotech companies. Another 85,000 square feet are under construction. How did all this get started?
It started when I read an article about a community college in upstate New York, near IBM. When IBM closed down its facility, there were all these workers that lost their jobs, and they were trying to start new businesses. The community college had a library and space, and they let the laid-off people come to campus and use their resources. And it enabled their students to interact with these people. I thought, gee, that’s a really terrific idea.
Around that same time, a state legislator came down and spoke with our president [SUNY-Downstate’s John C. LaRosa]. The legislator said that the state was really interested in biotech, and asked if Downstate would be interested in being involved. We were already thinking that way, so we said yes.
The city council gave us our first $500,000. We used that as matching funds to get a grant from NYSTAR. That gave us $1 million. We used that to do the architectural plans for what would eventually be a 50,000 square-foot building. It was designed in such a way that you could build it in phases as you raised the money.
Did you ever think this would be so huge?
It is really amazing. You know, I was trained to be a scientist. So it is amazing. What’s also amazing is that we didn’t have any money. It’s not as if we were rich and could just do this.
Brooklyn BioBAT is global now. Everyone wants to keep their companies in their country. I want to keep ours too. But I might want to stay living in France, and I might want to have a satellite office in New York. By the same token, somebody living here might want to have a satellite office in France. I think there’s enormous possibility for satellite offices at BioBAT.
My dream is that this entire complex [the Brooklyn Army Terminal], four million square feet, will be all biotechnology or technology.
What have you learned along the way?
I learned everything along the way. Everything.
How do you raise $90 million? Is it just like getting research grants? Do you just add another zero to the grant application?
In science, if you get a couple hundred thousand dollars for a research grant, that’s good.
Now we’re talking about money at a level that I was never doing as a scientist. When we got our first $500,000 we thought, oh my God, that’s so much money. And then we could leverage that and get a million dollars—just doing that, we were dumbfounded.
I joke with the [SUNY-Downstate] president, that if I don’t get a grant that’s at least $3 million, I don’t bother to go downstairs and tell him. (Laughs)
It’s as if people are dreaming and buying into a dream. You have to be able to look at a dilapidated building and say I can dream, and we can build this thing here. And the people who give you money have to see it and dream also.
Does New York have the talent to staff the biotech companies you want to bring here?
One of the things that’s not appreciated is that this is a very skilled profession. We need to take our college students, the ones who come out of four-year colleges with science majors, and train them further so they’re ready to go into these labs.
So we started one-month workshops, in which kids have two hours of lecture in the morning and then they’re in the lab all day, five days a week. We have trained more than 275 kids.
They learn new techniques. They learn what it’s really like to be in a research lab. It gives them a letter of recommendation. And they can say they have some experience. Because they get caught in this Catch-22 : “Well, you haven’t done it, and we’re only hiring people who have experience.”
Who is eligible?
Anyone. They don’t have to be from SUNY-Downstate. They can be going to another college, and they can be home in New York over the summer or for winter break.
Many of these kids are first generation in this country. They don’t have parents that can make connections for them to get jobs. We make connections for them in the best science labs in the country.
Charlie Rice has his company here, and he has interns in his research lab. Do you realize, he is perhaps, if not the most famous person in Hepatitis C in the world, then one of them. These kids now are working in his lab. That opportunity changes their whole life.
And these kids never just stay as technicians. Almost every person that worked as a technician in my lab either went on for an M.D. degree or Ph.D.
This program really is a meritocracy. If people are capable, it doesn’t matter if they don’t know anyone. Their brainpower now gets into this pipeline and it’s being used to build America. I mean, it’s so wonderful to have that.
What has been the biggest surprise, as you built the incubator and continue to build out BioBAT?
That we were able to do it. That it happened. That it was possible. — KW