Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Deval's Big Biotech Play

Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick announced today a 10 year, $1B plan to encourage further growth of the biotech sector. The money will be used on a variety of programs, including grants and several showpiece centers, particularly a stem cell bank to be housed at U. Mass Worcester Medical Center. Much of the funding would target stem cell research and RNAi (Craig Mello, one of the Nobel laureates for RNAi, is also at the medical center).

A big driver is the fear that Massachusetts will lose future biotech activity to other states, particularly California with its huge stem cell initiative. As mentioned previously, all sorts of states and countries are here at BIO trying to poach companies.

I wonder if this approach will really address the most important needs for Massachusetts biotech. More research funding is nice, but is that really the key issue?

For example, one could imagine funding programs to educate high school students in biotech, particulary laboratory technique. Making biotech retraining available to adults through community colleges and adult education programs would be another worthwhile activity. Both of these would create a large reservoir of potential technicians, and many of these skills are transferable elsewhere. In a similar manner, one could imagine programs to retrain health care workers, such as nurses and med techs, in relevant areas. This isn't an attempt to rob the healthcare Peter to pay the biotech Paula, but rather would reflect the reality that many such professionals burn out or want career changes for other reasons.

The governor might also target the permitting process, which is routinely bemoaned by the construction industry. Builders shouldn't have carte blanche, but reducing the complexity of rules and processes (especially across jurisdictions) would enable new research (and other) buildings to go up faster. Taking a look at local laws would be helpful; Cambridge's neighbor Somerville missed the biotech boom because into the 1990s (and perhaps later; I never did hear of a repeal) it was illegal to recombine DNA in Somerville.

It would also be worth looking at the growth of future biotech in Cambridge. Most research activities in Cambridge are in an irregular 2-mile or so long swath bounded by residential neighborhoods, MIT and the Charles River, with a large railroad & road corridor forming the extreme end. It is easy to scan that region with a builder's eye and see that there aren't many more parking lots or dilapidated buildings that will be easy to do away with (other than in the I-93/MBTA corridor, which is just starting to be built out). Throw in some reasonable urban mix of housing and retail, and there's only so much growth potential left -- particularly given Cambridge's aversion to very tall buildings & the very appropriate desire to have low-rise buffer zones on the edges of older residential neighborhoods. When Cambridge is truly full, where will the activity go? That might be a good question to start asking -- there is plenty of other biotech scattered in the state, but the concentration in Cambridge would argue there is advantage to density.

Transportation would be another important issue to tackle is transportation -- the Boston area already has a strained transportation system. The Cambridge biotech district is crossed by a number of bus and one subway line, but you can be somewhere in the Boston area with good transit service and not have good connections to Cambridge. One proposed transit line, the Urban Ring, would run smack through the middle of the district and connect it to the airport and the Longwood Medical Area.

In other words, perhaps the best way to support biotech in the state is to stick to some more traditional domains of state government. It might not be as sexy, but it might have a bigger impact and more beneficial side effects.

1 comment:

Alan Attlee said...

Hmmmm.... Mass could adopt the
Maine approach, put the labs
right on the coast a la
Bar Harbor. Gloucester?
Newburyport? Lynn?,