AgStart’s Woodland Incubator Will Provide Region with Desperately Needed Wet Lab Space

Dr. Daniel Almonacid, Head of Product Development and Data Science at Biome Makers, pitching to Dutch investors and officials at AgStart, November 2019

One of the biggest shortcoming in the Sacramento region in terms of economic development is a lack of wet lab space in the region.  This shortcoming has prevented companies from moving to the region and has led to some companies having to leave.

Wet labs are spaces that allow researchers to test biological or chemical material.  An article in the Business Journal last fall identified a key problem as cost.

AgStart is hoping to help alleviate this problem.  Last week, the nonprofit, based in Woodland, announced that it was starting a public-private collaboration that will created a shared-use innovation incubator in Woodland just east of the new court house in the Wiseman Building, which will support innovators and startup companies in agriculture, food and health.

When complete, the $1.3 million Lab@AgStart will feature a fully equipped shared-lab and kitchen space as well as a co-working office space.  Around since 2015, AgStart developed out of a project of SARTA (Sacramento Area Regional Technology Alliance), and John Selep, the president of AgStart, kept the company going by creating its own 501(c)(3) and locating in Woodland.

Companies that join the new lab will not be required to do anything other than become a member of AgStart.

“We’re going to remain as a non-profit helping to grow companies in our region,” Leanna Sweha, the program director of AgStart told the Vanguard.  “We believe we will be a big draw particularly from the Bay Area where lab space is virtually non-existent and very expensive.”

The lab is going into the three-story building that once housed the Superior Court’s annex.  Renovating that space to accommodate a wet lab will be quite an undertaking, Sweha said.  “We hope to open the beginning of the year.”

One of the problems for the region in terms of attracting and helping startup companies in the technology space grow is the lack of wet labs.

The Business Journal last year, for instance, noted that the lack of wet lab space is impacting UC Davis as well, where professors cannot get the space that they need, forcing the university to lease space off campus.  But that space is scarce and expensive.

The AgStart project which is creating a public-private partnership could be the key to creating more wet lab space that is also affordable for startups and small companies looking to come to the region and expand.

“Over the last few years, there has been a couple of wet labs that have come on line,” Sweha stated.  One is at UC Davis—the UC Davis-HM Clause Innovation Center.  That came on line in the last few years and created a 3100 square-foot off-campus facility that is administered and owned by HM Clause, one of the leaders in seed production.

There is also the Bayer Collaborator which opened in West Sacramento a few years ago.

But, despite these spaces, Sweha said that “basically it’s full.”  She said, “We just talked to somebody who’s interested in the lab at AgStart and he said before he learned about the lab at AgStart, he was concluding that there’s no lab space left in the state.”

While a slight exaggeration, Sweha noted “that’s how bad it is.”

Woodland’s proximity to the university will make this a prime location for university spinoffs.  Faculty members and graduate students will also have space to do their work, not governed by university intellectual property rules.

“This is going to be the biggest shared-lab space in the entire Central Valley when we open,” Sweha said.  The total size will 4800 square feet of shared wet lab, food lab, and co-working space.

“Our region has struggled with a lack of laboratory capacity to support emerging companies pursuing science-based innovations,” explained Michael Teel, chief visionary officer of Raley’s and head of the Greater Sacramento Area Economic Council’s Food and Agriculture Innovation Council. “Expanding our region’s capacity to support science-based Food and Ag technology innovation strengthens our region’s leadership as an ag-food-health innovation hub.”

Woodland is in one of the world’s most productive agricultural regions, but a region threatened by shortages of water and workforce availability. This creates opportunities for innovation—new drought-tolerant plant varieties, less-labor-intensive harvest techniques, and new foods and food ingredients—that could transform our food system.

“This land is both our past and our future, and we can’t wait to see what comes next. That’s why we’re proud to contribute significant funding for this project through our Doyuti T’uhkama partnership,” said the Tribal Council of the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, a Native American Tribe centered in nearby Brooks, California. “The Lab@AgStart will be all about creating what comes next.”

“In recent years, the prominence of UC Davis research in agriculture, food science, and human and animal health, and the strength of California’s Central Valley agricultural economy have generated an explosion of promising startup companies pioneering innovations to improve the productivity, efficiency, and sustainability of our food system,” said John Selep, president of AgTech Innovation Alliance, the nonprofit sponsor of the AgStart program.

He added, “Developing these new solutions involves scientific testing, development, and refinement, requiring laboratory facilities, which are scarce throughout our Central Valley region. As a result, available laboratory facilities in the Greater Sacramento region have been filled, and new lab capacity has been quickly absorbed.

“When it opens later in 2020, the Lab@AgStart facility will be the largest shared-use wet-lab facility for startup companies in the entire Central Valley region,” said Selep. “Construction on the improvements necessary to outfit the lab will commence this fall and the Lab@AgStart should be ready for occupancy around the end of the year.”

A broad coalition of public and private funding sources have been assembled to finance the $1.3 million dollar Lab@AgStart project.

“The U.S. Economic Development Administration made the right call in supporting AgStart. Their strong work to support burgeoning companies across the health and agriculture industries will lead to innovations that bolster our nation’s food system,” Congressman John Garamendi said in the AgStart relese.

In addition to the Economic Development Administration, the city of Woodland and Yolo County have committed financial support to the Lab@AgStart project as well.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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26 thoughts on “AgStart’s Woodland Incubator Will Provide Region with Desperately Needed Wet Lab Space”

        1. Alan Miller

          It was a serious question.  You said it “should” be in Davis.  I’d say Woodland won it.  I don’t see the “should”.  If you’re rooting for Davis winning businesses like one roots for sports teams winning a game, I guess the why makes sense.  Otherwise . . . you go Woodland!  #rah, rah, sis boom bah#

      1. Bill Marshall

        Some men see things as they are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were, and ask why not.   (RFK)

        Not quite a koan…

        Not fully (many factors) but J/R/D has a bunch to do with why not, as well as the underlying prejudice against development, change, in general…

        The ‘why’ is pretty obvious… economic benefits, and for some, “bragging rights”…

  1. Bill Marshall

    Like Davis fumbled the ball?

    How could they fumble?  Referees wouldn’t let them ‘have possession’… the ‘team’ didn’t mind, as they were focused on the ‘BANANA defense’…

    1. Matt Williams

      Bill, regarding your BANANA comment, I refer you to the graphic below.  Every single one of those 18 images requires no Building (the “B” of BANANA).

      Our inventory of already built and available commercial space in Davis is substantial. According to the March 2020 Davis Office and Commercial Space Report published by Jim Gray and Nahz Anvary the “Davis Building Base” number of total Square Feet is 1,688,681, and in the 4th Quarter of 2019 111,560 square feet of that total was vacant and available.  It will be interesting to see what the post-COVID vacant and available numbers are.



      1. Bill Marshall

        And how many of those are suitable for “wet lab” purposes without major (and retrofits are very expensive) tenant improvements?  All ‘commercial’ buildings are not ‘created’ equal…

        1. Matt Williams

          Bill, for the purposes of this Vanguard article, the site in Woodland that AgStart is moving into will be after major (and retrofits are very expensive) tenant improvements.

  2. Don Shor

    Per Matt:

    “Our inventory of already built and available commercial space in Davis is substantial. According to the March 2020 Davis Office and Commercial Space Report published by Jim Gray and Nahz Anvary the “Davis Building Base” number of total Square Feet is 1,688,681, and in the 4th Quarter of 2019 111,560 square feet of that total was vacant and available.”

    So to put that statistic in context:

    111,560/1,688,681 = 6.6% vacancy rate

    National office vacancy rate in August 2019 was 12.2%.

    “Markets with the lowest vacancy include San Francisco at 4.8 percent; San Jose, Calif. at 5.9 percent; Charlotte, N.C. at 6.0 percent; Oakland, Calif. at 7.8 percent; and Walnut Creek/I-680 Corridor, at 6.8 percent.”

    The broader market (office vacancy rates are higher than overall commercial):

    “Among respondents, the average commercial vacancy rate across commercial types (multi-family, industrial, retail, and hotel) was 7.3% in 2019 Q4. The lowest rental vacancy rates were in multi-family, at 4%, followed by industrial, at 5%. The highest vacancy rates were in office, at 10%, followed by retail, at 9%.”

    Effect of the pandemic:

    Sep 8, 2020 … “In the second quarter of 2020, the office vacancy rate in the United States equaled 15 percent, up from nine percent in the first quarter.”

    (subscription required)

    The vacancy rate has spiked again, much as it did a decade ago. Keep in mind that was the worst recession we’d experienced since the Great Depression. The exact impact of the pandemic may be as severe, or not; hard to say. I’ll leave that analysis to experts. But it appears to me that the local vacancy rate was not unusual and compared favorably to national and regional data.

    1. Matt Williams

      Don makes very valid points.  The numbers are the numbers.  One thing that is not clear from Nahz Anvary and Jim Gray’s report is how two of the inventory categories relate to one another.  So I sent Nahz the following e-mail asking for clarification

      Nahz, I have one question about the Market Indicators portion of your table.  Specifically, are the Total Available Space SF and the Under Construction SF additive, or is the 64,400 number of Under Construction SF included in the 111,560 number of Total Available Space SF?


      In a separate e-mail, I also asked John Cha, Director of Research and Nahz for a link to their Davis report so we can all access the information.

      1. Jim Gray

        Dear Matt… I think that your facts and statements not to mention photos need a bit of refreshing. ( The DTZ signs and photos –6 of them –are for a company that has not been in business in 3+ years and I am not sure of the status of those particular properties without studying them. I should know DTZ used to be my firm.)  It is a wild misstatement to say that we have a large available supply of commercial space.

        It is worth noting that of the 2 million +- feet of commercial space in Davis, that  is amongst the smallest total building base in the Region.  Our vacancy rate is amongst the lowest and the age of our properties is amongst the oldest.  We are not innovating or adapting at a pace that will allow us to be globally competitive.

        With regards to commercial space and stating that there will likely be a need for less because of the Covid Pandemic — I think you are failing to see what is going on in the economy at large.  There is growing demand for life science space.  There are major impacts on some sort of retail — but not all- Grocery , Nursery , and Home Goods sales are up.  Hotels are down.  Changes in office demand has push me and pull you impacts… work from home combined with more space and private offices for social distancing.

        We encourage our clients and policy makers to review the setting BC= Before Covid.  How healthy, how competitive, strong management, financial reserves and negative pre-existing conditions ?  DC = During Covid.  This is a Pandemic.  Our Public Health and many aspects of our  community and economy have been clobbered and are weakened.  Like the Federal Reserve and like the initial efforts by Congress; be accommodating and encourage investment and support those in greatest need.  AC=After Covid,  This time will come. Focus on beating the virus. Hopefully in the coming year. As an economic and business focus ; seek to innovate, be resilient, be lean and efficient, understand your competitive advantages and disadvantages, invest in infrastructure and work to provide opportunities for a broader inclusion.

        Davis needs more supply of commercial space.

      2. Jim Gray

        Matt and Vanguard Readers.  Like all professions there is jargon and industry specific definitions in most trades. Commercial real estate has its own set of definitions.

        “Available space” usually defines a space that is built and either vacant or likely to become vacant — a lease will be ending . Available does not usually define “under construction” nor “planned”.

        Please note that the 64,400 feet that is reported above, “under construction”, 50%+- of it became the New Nugget Headquarters. 16,200 is going to be a new Seed and Molecular Biology Lab for a Global Company and is scheduled to open and have many new jobs within the next Quarter.  That leaves a 16,200 square foot building that is available , actively on the market, and it is our understanding that it has had much interest in leasing it. Thankfully, some smart sophisticated builders, developers, and bankers made it possible for these buildings to be started and to attract world class companies.

        By the way these three buildings were built on land that was approved for development more than 25 years ago.

        By the way many companies want modern and new facilities with the amenities and features — including healthier and more energy efficient building environments with a smaller carbon foot print.  Not every building is going to work for the delivery of goods and services.

        We need more supply! We need more “planned” and “under construction”.

  3. Jim Gray

    My partner Nahz and I would like to congratulate John Selep and AgStart for the announcement of a Wet Lab and commercial kitchen as an incubator for start-ups that is planned in Woodland.This is a accomplishment/success  for the  region/Woodland/Sacramento/Davis  and with vision and perseverance AgStart and their collaborators are  taking valuable steps forward in developing an incubator space and creative commercial kitchen.  There is a real shortage of vacant wet lab spaces and this is particularly true for Ag Bio Tech Start-ups.   It is hard to raise capital for the intellectual farmers with a PHD’s —and many planners fail to create and fund capital budgets for expensive laboratories.  They often cost 2.5 to 5 times more than offices or warehouses.

    We wish this endeavor great luck. Please note that this being promoted and will be operated as a “non-profit” and it is only made possible by the combination of public resources, including economic development dollars as well as some private sector collaboration and donation. We want to recognize the tenacity and vision of Selep and the others championing this effort.  This is an important undertaking and hopefully many great companies focused on food, nutrition, sustainable agriculture will be hatched and grown from this incubator.

    Without naming names or issuing press releases I would like to point out that within the past 18 to 24 months there has probably been an investment in Davis in private sector research and scientific labs in the  scientific and lab spaces that is 8 to 10 times as great as what is contemplated at this proposed incubator.  Private developers, and private companies working with the great eco system of designers, architects, contractors, scientists, and local governments to create world class jobs and cutting edge research and products and services are busy trying to support scientific research and infrastructure all of the time.

    There are no winners or losers with this recent announcement.  There are only winners.  Our advice is celebrate this and don’t be critical.  If you want more… put your effort, resources, and capital to work to encourage more.  It is Ok to identify the obstacles and barriers and work to overcome them.  Let’s look for abundance and not focus on scarcity and limiting supply.

    It is very important to not mix the public policy concern of stimulating innovation and fueling incubators with the broader need for infrastructure development,  enabling  entitlement, and investment in building  new facilities, including offices and labs that will support jobs and scientific scale.

    Davis and UC Davis have a few incubators.  Sure we can use more.  Woodland’s gain is not Davis’ loss;  it is a valuable addition to the Region.

    Good luck and much success AgStart. Congrats!

    1. Alan Miller

      What I was saying in response to “loss” comments – JG just said it 100X more eloquently.  I don’t see a new business going in at Woodland, that Davis “could have had”, as a “loss”.

  4. Ron Glick

    “Let’s look for abundance and not focus on scarcity and limiting supply.”

    This is our biggest challenge. Davis is a place of abundance with a scarcity mindset. How do we overcome this and allow more people to benefit from our abundance of human capital when those that have theirs are indifferent to the needs of those that are coming up?

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