As scientists from all over the world convene in Boston for Biotech Week, my company is doubling down in Massachusetts. Flagship Ventures is moving its headquarters – but we have decided to stay in Kendall Square, where we put down roots almost two decades ago. Since our founding in 2000 we have both contributed to and witnessed the progress that has made Massachusetts a leader for innovation and the world’s epicenter of biotechnology.
We have benefited significantly from the biotech ecosystem in Massachusetts as we have launched more than 40 companies and, in partnership with academic collaborators, backed another 45 ventures. Many of these companies are based in Massachusetts – creating renewable fuels in Bedford; sustainable agriculture in Charlestown; water purification systems in Boston’s Seaport District; and conducting biomedical research throughout Cambridge and neighboring communities.
Biotech development in the region is sustained by close proximity to the world’s leading universities, research institutions, risk capital, life-sciences network – and entrepreneurial talent. The same iconoclastic thinking that challenges technological orthodoxy also stimulates social innovation, propelled by cultural diversity and manifested by leadership in universal health-care coverage and human rights. Enlightened public policy has nurtured this ecosystem to the extent that Massachusetts now employs more than 100,000 life-sciences workers, with an additional 400,000 employees in the health-care industry. That is almost 20 percent of the total state workforce, which translates to a direct contribution to the Massachusetts economy of more than $25 billion and much more in indirect benefit.
There certainly is a lot to celebrate at Biotech Week, but the Commonwealth’s position as a preeminent biotechnology hub is by no means secure. The ecosystem is fragile and other regions, in the United States and abroad, look to our achievement and try to mimic it. Many states, such as California and New Jersey, have similar conditions for success: world-class academic institutions, desirable communities, spirited funding sources and others. Many, including North Carolina and Texas, also have lower costs of living, milder climates and better transportation. Other states are beating us in terms of R&D job growth and manufacturing. Whether we like it or not – whether we even appreciate it or not – these regions compete with Massachusetts for talent, ideas and financial resources.
An advantage that is harder to replicate is strong public-private sector collaboration, visible in institutions such as the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, established in 2008 through the Life Sciences Initiative. As we approach the end of this 10-year, $1 billion investment, we in the industry must work with policy makers and academia to make the commitment permanent. This initiative helped solidify the Commonwealth as a crucible for innovation, and must be extended in light of new competition. The same sort of ingenuity and courage that has enabled our region to become the world’s leader in biotech research will be essential in all realms – science, financing, and public policy.
At the same time, we need to address social factors that impede growth. The problems of today – reliable transportation, affordable housing, educational opportunity and income equality – offer the chance to create the innovations of tomorrow. They are as essential to our thriving economy as biomedical research. Education, as has been the case since Massachusetts established the first college and the first public school in America, is a linchpin of the region’s future vitality. Governor Baker has made a bold start with the education-assistance plan, Commonwealth Commitment. This program, which again puts Massachusetts in a leadership position, needs to be supplemented with increased support for education. No community can thrive for long without a societal foundation that enables its people to live good lives. We can do this, together, and in so doing secure and make Massachusetts an attractive place to create new innovations, build and grow companies, and offer a prosperous future for everyone.
This was originally published in the Boston Business Journal.