Deval Patrick Needs You…

6/22/07

I attended a small meeting of the minds yesterday at the Charles Hotel in Harvard Square. Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick invited potential stakeholders to suggest what his proposed $1 billion Life Sciences Initiative should actually look like. I must admit that I am usually skeptical when leaders ask how they should do their jobs, but this was different. I think that requesting input from the key sectors (including biotech, pharma, VC, public and private academia, health-care institutions, and various Beacon Hill folk) is a good move here, not to mention refreshing. Having been to the session, I’m not certain that I know much more about what the plan is going to look like than I did before, but some interesting things were said.

First, the plan is to be honchoed by the Massachusetts Life Science Center, a group described by housing and economic development secretary Dan O’Connell as being “a creature of the legislature.” The group’s five-member board (perhaps to be enlarged in the days ahead) will be responsible for the implementation and execution of the program.

Also, when Gov. Patrick took the stage, I could have sworn that he said he hopes to see 250,000 jobs created through the initiative over the next 10 years. That’s a lot of people, and while a portion of the day was dedicated to brainstorming about workforce issues, my big question was how these folks would afford condos in Cambridge. The apparent answer has to do with a push to spread the wealth around the commonwealth via a network of “Innovation Centers.” The plan will likely involve a lot of investment in and around Boston and Cambridge but also looks to other locales within the state where commercial interests might get a boost from things like quick permit-granting processes and a lower cost of living for employees.

Next, there will be funding for research. Exactly how that process comes together—what types of grants will be funded, who decides on the recipients, and other important questions such as how IP will be handled—remains to be seen. Here, I would urge Gov. Patrick not to reinvent the wheel. Several states (including Connecticut, where I serve, and California—the gorilla in the room) have already established funding programs and done a great deal of thinking (and in some cases litigating) to figure out what works and what does not. At least, that’s true for stem cell research, admittedly only a small part of the governor’s plan. Last month at the National Academies of Sciences’ Beckman Center in Irvine, CA, representatives of nine states (including one from Massachusetts) gathered under the working title “The Interstate Alliance for Stem Cell Research.” Their goals were simple: to initiate dialogue that might assist states seeking to establish stem cell grant programs and to do whatever was possible to craft/massage/tweak states’ existing initiatives so they don’t actually impair the ability to collaborate across state lines. More on this to come.

Finally, one thing really made an impression on me. Of all the state programs to promote the life sciences that I’ve heard about, the Massachusetts plan sounds the most commercial. Other states that have gotten into the game have done so in part due to a need to promote translational science that leads to the development of improved therapeutics. Flat National Institutes of Health funding levels and two presidential vetoes around stem cells have told the people, “Do it yourself.” To quote Gov. Patrick, “Scientific research should not be held hostage by politics.” Bravo sir, well said, but it’s about more than funding translational science.

All the state initiatives I have seen have an element of economic development/stimulus, but the Massachusetts plan appears to be built around it. The five working groups from yesterday were (roughly speaking) workforce and education, business development (taxes), innovation and infrastructure (the aforementioned statewide “innovation centers”), promoting ideas and innovation (grants), and implementation. The breakout groups met for about two hours each in order to generate “wish lists” to be passed along to the governor’s staff. (I was in the grants session and had a lot to say.) Each group then gave a 15-minute summary at the end of the day, and without exception, the presentations were geared toward one question: how will Massachusetts maintain its lead in the life sciences in a global market containing players like Singapore, China, and even California? It’s a big question, and there is not a lot of time to figure out the answer. Yesterday, more than 100 smart people (and at least one who was simply glad to be there) took a few moments to provide what sounded to me like very good advice. If even a fraction of those in attendance are willing to help with a bit of follow-through, the governor will have a lot to smile about in the days ahead.

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