Q&A With Massachusetts’ Billion-Dollar Woman: Susan Windham-Bannister. Part 2.

8/22/08Follow @xconomy

Yesterday we ran the first half of an e-mail interview with Susan Windham-Bannister, the new president and CEO of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, the agency charged with administering Gov. Deval Patrick’s 10-year, $1 billion initiative to promote the industry. Here’s the link if you missed it. The rest of the interview with Dr. Sue, as she is known to the staff, follows below.

Xconomy: What gap can the state fill that isn’t already well-served by organizations that support biotech, like the NIH, venture capital firms, pharmaceutical companies, foundations?

Susan Windham-Bannister: The MLSC can’t be a mini-NIH, venture capital fund or foundation. When I’ve been speaking with industry executives, academic leaders and medical researchers the ideas that get the most positive reception are using Life Sciences Center dollars to “match, accelerate, and seed.” Here are a few examples of the types of gaps that we are trying to fill by matching, accelerating, and seeding:

In June the MLSC announced New Faculty Matching Grants to several university applicants. The awards, recommended by our Scientific Advisory Board from a pool of applications, help Massachusetts academic institutions attract new faculty by boosting their ability to compete for highly sought after experts. Why is this important? Because highly-respected faculty may be the anchor that is needed by a university to build a new department, or expand a department or to attract students who want to work with that expert.

A second critical gap that we are trying to fill is “accelerating” support for young scientists. NIH funding has been “flat” for the past five years and receiving an NIH grant is getting increasingly difficult for young researchers who are trying to build their reputations. It’s gotten so discouraging that many young investigators are choosing to leave the field. Under the MLSC’s Young Investigator Grants program our Scientific Advisory Board reviewed applications from up-and-coming young scientists who needed financial support to continue their work. The MLSC is funding eleven (11) young investigators for up to three years and our grants will enable them to continue their work.

We also are trying to fill an important gap that occurs when good research is ready to move from the lab into the world of industry. Our Collaborative Matching Grants, to be announced in September, will fund joint initiatives between industry and academia. Finally, the MLSC provided the seed money for a Stem Cell Bank and Registry at UMass in Worcester, which will be a world-class stem cell bank and a resource to the entire life sciences community in Massachusetts.

X: What distinguishes the Massachusetts plan from that of any other state or country attempting to support its biotech cluster?

SWB: Our review of other state models and discussions with representatives of these initiatives (for example, California, North Carolina, Texas) indicates that the Massachusetts initiative is more comprehensive than others. The California initiative focuses on stem cell research; the Texas initiative focuses on cancer. Also, the Massachusetts initiative is broadly inclusive of all members of the life sciences community. California’s initiative is grounded in its state university system. Last, but certainly not least, the Massachusetts initiative gives great latitude to the Life Sciences Center. Our management team will be able to explore a range of investments and programs in a way that allows us to do what is necessary to make impact, through strategic planning.

In those decisions, we will be guided by an expert Scientific Advisory Board comprised of scientists from across the state, and Board of Directors, which includes representatives from the medical community, industry and state agencies. The willingness of these experts to be actively involved in the Massachusetts life sciences initiative is a testament to the enthusiasm and belief that the new initiative that can make a difference. For this, we have to give credit to Governor Patrick’s vision, the leadership of Senate President Therese Murray and Speaker Salvatore DiMasi, and the wisdom of the legislature for delivering an outstanding piece of legislation. As someone from California said to me at the BIO meeting in San Diego, “California got it first, but Massachusetts got it right!” … Next Page »

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