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 for state budget cuts: “Just a quick reminder. We have a $500 million capital fund for large-scale infrastructure and building, tied to bonding dollars. We get a share of the state capital plan. There are up to $25 million of tax incentives we can award each year. Then there’s a $25 million investment fund, appropriated from the Legislature. Back in October or November, when the state realized it had a significant shortfall, the center was asked to take a 40 percent cut.
It’s from the grant and the loan-making portion, and equity stakes could come from that as well. It’s really discretionary money used for a variety of purposes. So is it a replacement? I wouldn’t say that, I’d say it’s a leveraging. That’s always our intent. On the surface, $1 billion sounds great in life sciences, but $1 billion brings one molecule to the market, essentially. It’s always been our intent to serve as a magnet for other capital to invest. We believe that retaining at least a critical mass strengthens our ability to attract other capital. It’s not a way to replace those dollars, it’s a way to extend those dollars. We feel very good about being able to go back and say that since July, we’ve invested $42.6 million of public tax dollars, and leveraged $352 million of private investment, and created 950 jobs. We like being able to go back to the taxpayers and say, ‘We spent one of your dollars, and we invested $9. Eight of those came from other investors.'”
—On how the agency arrived at that $350 million private investment figure: “We took a look at what we know. That’s a conservative number, because we knew we’d be asked that. We looked at where we know directly there were investments made. For grants, every one of our research grants has a one-to-one match. We know, for example, our $10 million investment in the Marine Biological Laboratory attracted a $15 million grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The institute told MBL that our grant was instrumental in them deciding to give the grant. We know that as a result of our investment in the town of Framingham, to enable them to build a pump station and better wastewater management, we know how much Genzyme invested in moving ahead to build a 300-person biomanufacturing facility. We’ve been tracking it. We know from the young companies that have applied to us, we know how much additional money they were able to access because they got a grant from the center.
—On how deep the state budget cuts might go for her agency: It’s hard to tell, it’s early in the process. Debates going on now in the House, then will go to the Senate. What we are hoping for is to at least have level funding with fiscal 2009, which would be $15 million. We’re realistic. In this state, as in every state, the legislature is looking at cutting direct services to people and programs like ours. Fire, police protection, and programs like ours. So I think it would be unrealistic of us not to expect that we will be asked to make some concessions. But I think it’s too early to say exactly what that might look like. It’s for fiscal 2010. The governor proposed $20 million for the grant-making portion. That’s a $5 million reduction from what’s envisioned in the statute.
—On resolving a dispute over who owns intellectual property generated from state grants: We’ll turn our attention to that in early 2010. We’re having conversations with individuals on differing sides of the issue. That’s a pressing and important issue for us to weigh in on.
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