Adaptive Biotechnologies’ new HQ: Co-founders show off 100K square-foot space in Seattle

Adaptive co-founders Harlan (left) and Chad Robins on the plaza at the new Adaptive Biotechnology headquarters. (GeekWire Photos / Charlotte Schubert)

After doubling its workforce during the pandemic, Adaptive Biotechnologies finally has room to grow.

The company on Tuesday will cut the ribbon on its new 100,086 square-foot headquarters in Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood, with Gov. Jay Inslee and others expected to attend.

The building, at the site of a former gym and smoothie store near Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, approximately doubles the footprint of the company, which also has a presence in San Francisco and New York. The more 782-employee company will also retain its nearby existing 66,000 square-foot space.

Adaptive was spun out of Fred Hutch in 2009 with technology to assess the immune response. It joined the public markets in June 2019, raising $300 million, foreshadowing a string of public debuts for Washington biotech companies and a focused involvement of the region in COVID-19 research.

Co-founders and brothers Chad and Harlan Robins have complementary expertise. Harlan, former head of the the computational biology program at Fred Hutch, serves as chief scientific officer. Chad, a former executive at real estate, investment banking, private equity, and medical technology companies, is CEO. (When they have disputes, the pair call on their mother to mediate.)

The new 100,000 square foot building has 20,000 square feet of lab space and is built for 321 employees.

The brothers also had complementary ideas about what they wanted in a new building. Harlan thought about how to integrate the building’s features into the company’s scientific workflow. His main concern: “How do you optimize efficiency?”

“We had to custom design it to be around our particular workflow. But you have to keep it modular enough, in case you change that workflow,” said Harlan in an interview with GeekWire at the new headquarters. “It’s sort of this combination of trying to be as efficient as you can but allowing for easy changes at the same time.”

Chad considered how to create a welcoming and collaborative scientific culture with the building design.

“From my perspective, we wanted to create a space that people wanted to come to that facilitated collaboration,” said Chad. “We wanted a feeling of hey, this is awesome, this is where I want to be.”

The building has plenty of space for collaboration and interaction.

Adaptive has signed a long-term lease for the new building, at 1165 Eastlake Ave. E, which was completed on time and within budget. The owner is Alexandria Real Estate Equities, which was also selected by the city in 2019 to develop the Mercer mega block, a project that includes 770,000 square feet of lab space with an additional 417,000 square feet planned on nearby parcels, according to a recent report from real estate services company JLL.

The new building activity should provide some relief to a life sciences community crunched for lab space. Life sciences employment increased 21% from 2010 to 2019 in the Seattle-Bellevue area, according to the JLL, as biotech booms in the region.

The labs are designed modularly — the bench space is mobile and can easily be reconfigured.

The pandemic has given Adaptive’s work a sense of urgency and put the squeeze on its workspace.

“Because we were working under so much pressure and with such a sense of urgency, it’s allowed us to really accelerate some of our technological innovations,” said Lance Baldo, Adaptive’s chief medical officer in a separate interview.

The company ramped up rapidly as the pandemic accelerated, supporting the development of COVID-19 vaccines. It forged partnerships with Johnson & Johnson, AstraZeneca and more recently Moderna to help assess the immune response to their vaccines.

In February the company released a test for the virus based on immune cells that are a mark for ongoing and prior infection, “T-detect COVID.”

The new building will expand the space for this core area of the company. Adaptive focuses on analyzing T cells and assessing key molecules on their surface, T cell receptors.

“In some ways, you can think of this as our T cell building,” said Harlan.

T cells recognize foreign invaders via T cell receptors, helping launch the immune response. T cell receptors come in many different flavors, each recognizing different components of an invader — such as the different parts of the COVID-19 virus.

The building has triangular motifs throughout that resemble T cell receptors, key molecules on T cells that recognize foreign molecules.

The company’s technology catalogs T cell receptors through DNA sequencing and analysis. About half of its science workforce has a computational background, some of whom are already working in the new building as the lab space is completed over the next few months.

The company performs deep analysis of different T cell receptors to determine which ones correspond to which conditions, such as COVID-19 infection. Such projects form the cornerstone of an ongoing collaboration with Microsoft.

Just like it has built a T cell test for COVID-19, Adaptive is also building tests for Lyme disease and intestinal bowel disease and is aiming for other conditions, such as multiple sclerosis.

All of these different use cases begin with the same step — processing human blood samples and extracting DNA. And that begins in the basement of the new facility, where samples will be delivered directly from the loading dock.

“The core chemistry is exactly the same,” said Baldo. “Lyme gets run in the same production lab as COVID, as will the next product as well.”

Samples enter the lab directly from the loading dock in the basement, where the co-founders are pictured here. The basement floor is devoted to processing blood samples, and will have more than 40 employees.

After preparation the samples are ferried up to the next floor for further analysis. The labs on each floor are all connected by a dumbwaiter, assuring they never leave the lab environment. “It’s like 1800s technology,” quipped Harlan, adding that it was not simple to build.

The company also announced a recent partnership with the biopharma company Vaccibody to develop a COVID-19 vaccine designed to elicit a strong T cell response. Most vaccines are designed to boost antibodies, but a T-cell focused vaccine has the potential to build longer-lasting immunity.

In its approximately 30,000 square foot San Francisco location, the company focuses on cell therapy projects for cancer. It has an ongoing collaboration with Roche’s Genentech to develop T-cell based cellular therapies tailored to each individual’s tumor. Next year the companies expect to file an investigational new drug application with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, a key step before initiating a clinical trial.

About 20,000 square feet of the new building is devoted to lab space, which includes an area to research new automation processes, a lab to optimize the chemistry behind the company’s tests, and other research and development space.

Windows are everywhere at the new HQ. This one overlooks the construction site for another research building.

The building also is full of light and window space. It includes a large garage-like door that opens onto a patio overlooking Lake Union, a 6,500 square foot rooftop terrace. Open office space is interspersed with nooks and offices, mini-lounges and collaborative areas. “There’s a lot of cool touch-down spaces,” noted Chad.

About half the workforce is still largely working from home during the Delta COVID-19 surge, after initially returning. “As our business expanded during COVID, it was strange where half the space was quite empty, and then the lab was bursting at the seams,” said Chad.

Chad anticipates that the new space should help lure everyone working from home back as the pandemic eases. He added: “We are taking the carrot approach.”

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Health/life sciences Adaptive biotechnologies Chad robins Harlan robins Lance baldo