all the information, none of the junk | biotech • healthcare • life sciences

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

Xconomy Boston — 

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!”

X: What is being done to make sure the state’s money is being well-spent?

SWB: All of the things that I’ve mentioned earlier:

• Actively listening to the life sciences community so that our choices about priorities represent the voice of our “customers”
• Working closely with key industry and academic organizations, including the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, MassMEDIC, the Council of Boston Teaching Hospitals and regional economic development groups
• Setting priorities and focusing our investments
• Fostering open communications regarding our priorities and decision making criteria
• Relying on the expertise of our Scientific Advisory Board, Board of Directors (including our co-chairs, Secretary of Housing and Economic Development, Daniel O’Connell and Secretary of Administration and Finance Leslie Kirwan and their solid, experienced teams)
• Building a highly seasoned, professional team at the Center
• Seeking input from our advisory partners including our Regional Technology Innovation Centers and 18-member Advisory Committee, as well as from other regional partners
• Learning from the best practices, and mistakes, of other state initiatives
• Ensuring that we’ll have performance metrics to demonstrate our accomplishments and goals

X: What rules, procedures, or committees need to be set up before this can be fully up and running?

SWB: Our Board of Directors and Scientific Advisory Boards are in place. The legislation also calls for an Advisory Board to be appointed by the Governor. The SAB is using a modified version of the review process followed by NIH reviewers, so we’re following the gold standard. But we are planning a review with the SAB and Board of Directors of our first rounds of grants to see how well this pilot process worked and what could be improved. We will be collaborating with the Department of Revenue to answer questions concerning the tax incentives and with our colleagues in the Executive Office of Administration and Finance, the Massachusetts Office of Business Development and Massachusetts Financing for Development to determine what the criteria should be for becoming a “certified life sciences project/company.” We also need to develop funding criteria other than those for scientific merit, because an important part of our mission is to invest dollars that will drive economic development. We’re on a fast track to get these criteria developed.

X: When can we expect the first grant announcements, or infrastructure projects to begin?

SWB: We already have awarded in July $7 million in grants—our matching grants for Young Investigators and New Faculty Start-Up positions. We have a third round of Matching Grants for Collaboration that we’ll announce in September. Applications for these grants are in and our peer-review panel will be scoring them this month before the Scientific Advisory Board reviews them and makes its recommendations to the MLSC Board.

As well, in October, 2007, the MLSC Board of Directors voted to provide first year funding, in the amount of $8.2 million, for a new Stem Cell Bank and Stem Cell Registry at UMass Medical School. We expect announcements on both of those important projects in the coming months and are excited about the work that we have helped to support there.

X: What’s the greatest potential pitfall with a program like this, and what is being done to prevent it from happening?

SWB: The greatest potential pitfall is trying to do too much, so that the life sciences initiative doesn’t really end up accomplishing anything meaningful. As I mentioned earlier, we are actively involving the life sciences community in helping us determine what an organization like the MLSC can do that would make a difference and what our priorities should be for our first years under the new initiative.

X: What do you consider the key measurements for success in five to 10 years?

SWB: Obviously we will need to demonstrate that we’ve helped created jobs and revenue for the state. It will be important to demonstrate that we’ve helped companies grow here and have attracted companies to come and do business in Massachusetts. It would be wonderful if we could point to some of the projects that we’ve supported and show that they led to major break-throughs in treatments or even resulted in cures.

Coming from Abt Bio-Pharma Solutions, which specializes in developing impact metrics to guide decision making, it is critically important to me that we have a formalized process of measuring and monitoring our impact. I’ve been reaching out to some of the colleges and universities, consulting firms and institutes both in Massachusetts and around the country for input and advice on the best ways to measure the economic and social benefits that are created by life sciences investments. I’m getting great excitement about this because the MLSC provides an opportunity to engage some of the Commonwealth’s economists, business school faculty and statisticians in thinking about the types of indicators that reflect the “success” of this type of initiative. The Massachusetts health reform initiative already is a national model, so why not the Massachusetts life sciences initiative as well? Hopefully, we’ll be a case study that is read in schools around the country for years to come!

X: What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten so far?

SWB: Be as transparent as you can in your decision making. Everyone won’t agree with all of the decisions made by the MLSC, but if the Center’s priorities and decision making criteria are clear, the Center can achieve respect for its process and investment choices.