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Alexandria grows a life sciences campus

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Employees working at the new 220,000-square-foot life sciences campus in Torrey Pines have their pick of mouth-watering options: brick-oven-baked flatbreads with seasonal ingredients plucked from an on-site garden, spaghetti squash meatballs and beet bruschetta. It’s not your typical lunchtime cafeteria menu, and Nautilus is not your typical office complex.

Serving health food -- not heavy pastas and pie -- to people who cure diseases for a living seemed like a no-brainer. The celebrity chef behind the concept, however, was a surprising pick.

Brian Malarkey, the brains behind downtown's hip Searsucker, Del Mar's Burlap and others, created the proprietary restaurant brand called Green Acre cafe for the campus. Even he admits he’s an odd fit.

“My team is known for doing these big restaurants. The nightlife is going on,” he said. “I was like, 'why us?'"

Alexandria Real Estate Equities Inc. (NYSE: ARE) wanted to do an out-of-the box restaurant concept on the campus, paired with an on-site organic garden. Malarkey, who hadn’t yet dipped his hand in the fast-casual or healthy market, bit.

“Most of the time we are pushing booze and rich food. It would be good education for me and my team,” said Malarkey, who grew up with a dad who cooked steak and potatoes.

Tenants at Nautilus include Novartis AG (NYSE: NVS), Sequenom Inc. (Nasdaq: SQNM), The Scripps Research Institute, and Verenium Corp. (Nasdaq: VRNM), which together employ hundreds of scientists, researchers, academicians, managers and support personnel.

“You are not going to your car, sitting in traffic at the UTC mall and eating a hamburger,” said Daniel Ryan, executive vice president and regional market director at Alexandria, which hosted an open house at its campus Thursday.

An Infinite Athleticism-operated gym offers yoga and zumba, personal training, group training, nutrition, and physical therapy.

For a break, employees can sprawl on cushioned benches that sit on a spacious patch of faux grass or play ping-pong and grill on the outdoor barbecue. Beige Adirondack-style chairs blend in with the garden, which has multiple entrances to encourage foot traffic.

While the outdoor design is a breath of fresh air, the concept is nothing new. The communal space calls to mind a commons area, which has been implemented by city planners for centuries.

"What Alexandria has created is a researchers’ heaven of a commons where we can all interact,” said David Webb, adjunct professor at the Scripps Research Institute. “It doesn’t matter if you are in the private sector or the academic research area. We are out here having lunch together, talking about various things.”

Scripps’ group at Nautilus is on the leading edge of research in various areas, including the detection in the blood of circulating tumor cells.

“Ten years ago no one even knew circulating tumor cells existed,” said Webb. “We are trying to understand not only what these cells are but what it means when you detect them either before or after cancer therapy.”

Nautilus represents the latest addition to Alexandria's approximately 2.8 million-square-foot San Diego asset base of life science campuses and facilities.

Alexandria renovated the underutilized buildings on the site this year. That revamp didn't quite make the space restaurant ready, however.

“We looked at the facility and, I don’t want to be rude, but it was really kind of bland. It didn’t have much going on," Malarkey said. “If I was cracking these mathematical equations, splitting atoms and saving people from cancer, I’d want to relax."

So, he created a menu and atmosphere with the goal of getting employees to converse and energize. San Diego-based Bluemotif architecture, the trendy firm behind Prepkitchen, worked in a timeless wood design. Accents include chalkboards, vintage microscopes and sofas.

"The water dispenser wasn’t very attractive. We wrapped it in fake grass and made it friendly and fresh," said Malarkey.

Malarkey called upon one of his chefs, Joel Cammett of La Mesa’s Gingham, to take the reins and work with the farmers to convert garden ingredients into soups and salads.

“I had to think what granola, hippie, great chef do I have working for me,” Malarkey said.

Sustainable features of the site include a "cool roof" to reduce baseline energy consumption and a drought-tolerant plant palette. There’s even green built into the bathroom. Toilets have two button options for flushing, one for solids and another for liquids.

Those elements collect the project LEED points, and it’s hoping for a Gold Core and Shell certification from the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC).

San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders delivered one of his last speeches as mayor at the event.

“This is a reflection of San Diego. It represents the best of innovation and sustainability,” Sanders said. “Buildings offer next-generation laboratory facilities and office space designed to support creativity.”

The ecosystem is designed to attract and retain some of the best minds and companies in the field. They seem to be sticking to the campus.

By lunchtime, each of Verenium’s senior team had made a trip to the gym one day last week. Verenium employs 110 at the site and uniquely plunks visible lab space right next to its business team.

“It gets people in touch with what’s going on in a creative, open environment,” said James Levine, president and CEO of Verenium, which makes enzymes for use in poultry feed, corn ethanol plants and other applications.

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