Dr. Sue Skates Where the Puck is Heading in Life Sciences–Waltham

5/19/09Follow @xconomy

The woman who runs the 10-year, $1 billion initiative to spur life sciences in Massachusetts has set up her office in Waltham, MA, about a 30-minute drive from one of the world’s leading and most famous clusters of biotech— Kendall Square in Cambridge. And she’s out there for a reason.

This was one of the more intriguing insights I picked up from meeting a couple weeks ago with Susan Windham-Bannister, the president of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, otherwise known by her colleagues as “Dr. Sue.” I caught up with her at her new office, in a suburban complex carved into a hill on Winter Street, overlooking the reservoir and Route 128.

There were politics to consider, like whether it would upset some people if the agency were perceived to be too myopically focused on Kendall Square or the Longwood Medical corridor, to the exclusion of other parts of the state that don’t want to be left behind in a future of biotech-driven prosperity. But she also didn’t want to appease those interests, only to set up shop in the boondocks, away from the action.

“Mass General Hospital has a big satellite on Route 128; if you go down to the end of Winter Street, there’s a huge campus for AstraZeneca,” Windham-Bannister says. “In addition to Advanced Technology Ventures here, you’ve got Polaris, in this exact same complex. You’ve got North Bridge Partners here. Up the road you’ve got the Mass Medical Society. Across the street you have Thermo Fisher Scientific. From where I sit, I’m looking at the new campus for Shire. Around the corner from Shire, you’ve got Cubist. If you go up one exit or two, you get closer to Burlington and Billerica, which is where Serono is building a huge campus.

“This is the next big life sciences cluster,” Windham-Bannister says. “Maybe it’s because I’m a strategic planner by profession before I took on this role, but I like to say as Wayne Gretzky used to say, I like to skate to where the puck is going, not to where the puck is. On our part, it’s a recognition that this is a very important life sciences cluster.”

We also talked about some of the weightier matters on her desk at the moment. Here are some edited highlights:

On whether she expects a financial return to taxpayers by providing loans to biotech startups: “We expect that in a number of cases that will be what happens. We developed this with a roundtable of VCs. We expect to be able to recycle some of that money, and give it to additional young companies who can really benefit from it. The real return on us is to see those companies grow up, have ribbon cuttings, and see them hire more employees. And get those great ideas into the marketplace. That’s our return, our mission.

On what the agency is doing to foster better education and workforce training: “We realize companies need an entry-level workforce that has practical, hands on experience, and that’s a big gap in biomanufacturing. This summer, the center is sponsoring what we call an internship challenge. We’ll provide stipends that will make available 100 to 200 interns. They’ll have a chance to go work in a company lab, or an academic lab. Anywhere in the state. These are juniors and seniors in college, or recent graduates who have an interest in life sciences. What we’ve done is turned our website into Monster.com for young people interested in life sciences. They can go and post their resumes there. They go and fill out a short application. Then companies can come and surf our site, and do queries, by geography, major.

We have 450 resumes there in a just a three to four-week period. About 30 companies and 15 institutions are already making matches. We have 25 interns already placed.

On how corporations like Johnson & Johnson and venture capitalists are compensating … Next Page »

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  • http://www.cictr.com Tim Rowe

    What Susan is doing with the Mass Life Sciences Center is simply terrific. It is not only extremely helpful in that sector, but is also a model that could be extended to other sectors. Go MSLC. The MSLC team is down at Bio right now telling our region’s story, and nothing could be more helpful.

    Having said that, as a hockey dad and tireless defender of Kendall Square, I am bound to mention that I’m not sure the puck is really heading to the suburbs, as your article suggests.

    Alexandria Real Estate recently won approval to build another 1.6 million square feet of lab space right here in Kendall Square, and Novartis recently announced it will build another 300,000+ sq. ft. building near here for lab and office. True that Biogen Idec announced plans to move part of their operations to Weston, but as I understand it, that is their administrative operations, while they plan to keep their research right here. With the greatest respect to Waltham, I think for the time being the puck stops here.

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