A life sciences innovation hub in East San Antonio is on pace to open next month, officials said.

VelocityTX, an incubator and business complex for life science companies, will open in the middle of September with anchor tenant GenCure expected to bring its adult stem cell production center online.

The launch will be the culmination of a two-year redevelopment of the former Merchants Ice building, which stood vacant and derelict for years, and the first steps toward a multiphase plan to create a broader innovation district on the near East Side. The development is sparking interest from the business community in a historically blighted part of the city, said Randy Harig, CEO of the Texas Research and Technology Foundation (TRTF), the organization at the forefront of the redevelopment.

“Right now that whole area is a curiosity from a development standpoint,” Harig said. “But as things start to become a reality, I think there will be more of an interest.”

Already, revitalization efforts appear to be having an impact on the cost of real estate on the near East Side. Local coffee shop and coffee roaster Estate Coffee Co., whose store sits across the street from the redevelopment project on East Houston Street, issued an email recently about its increasing prices caused by a spike in the cost of supplies and its rent going up. According to data from the Bexar Appraisal District, Eastside neighborhoods such as Dignowity Hill, Government Hill, and Denver Heights are among the areas with where property values are on a steep ascent.

When complete, the VelocityTX complex is anticipated to be a $220 million project. In addition to the VelocityTX innovation center, TRTF plans a broader innovation district for the life sciences in the 4 acres surrounding the Merchants Ice site. The development of the center, which aims to help early-stage startups grow and become viable, will take shape in four phases over a 10-year period. 

Harig said he anticipates the development will not only draw activity in the life science fields but also garner increasing interest from an array of commercial development, including restaurant, office space, and apartments.

TRTF recently announced the hiring of Rene Dominguez from the City as its president and chief operating officer. The outgoing director of economic development at the City of San Antonio will begin his new post next Monday. Dominguez will take the reins of the organization from an operational standpoint, which will allow Harig to focus on executing the vision of TRTF and VelocityTX, he said.

“Our end goal is to be a major factor in the economic future of San Antonio,” he said.

Harig said the VelocityTX building will have about eight tenants by the time TRTF moves in at the end of September. He expects to have about 20 by the end of the year.

That includes BioBridge Global subsidiary GenCure, whose organization revolves around its clean room pods, modular spaces for the development of stem cells. Currently the company has two clean rooms at its headquarters on Interstate 10 in Northwest San Antonio. It will have 11 clean room pods at its VelocityTX space, said Becky Butler Cap, senior vice president and chief operating officer of GenCure.

“We have very high confidence we will be in production in the fourth quarter [of 2019], but where in that fourth quarter, I’m not yet comfortable jinxing my team,” Cap said with a laugh.

GenCure is a contractor for biotech companies that develop stem cell therapies for use in clinical trials. Those treatments will be targeted at such conditions as acute kidney injury; corneal repair; trauma and wound management; cancer; and Parkinson’s disease and other neurodegenerative diseases.

By the beginning of next year, GenCure hopes to have hired manufacturing associates, the employees that will work in the clean rooms and grow the stem cells; inventory control and management workers; administrative support staff; supervisors; and facilities safety technicians.

GenCure specializes in allogeneic therapy – that is, expanding and growing cells from one set of adult stem cells. For example, if a million stem cells are extracted from a patient, they can grow 20 billion cells from that, which can be used to treat a large number of patients, Cap said. GenCure’s customers include local stem cell developer StemBioSys.

Cap said she has heard skepticism from some in the community who say the VelocityTX project is another in a long line of starts-and-stops in the quest to revitalize the East Side.

“I don’t know if it’s different than the others because I don’t have any insights into those,” she said. “But I can tell you the level of excitement across the board on this is really high. All of the pieces are coming together.”

JJ Velasquez was a columnist, former editor and reporter at the San Antonio Report.