Saturday, May 31, 2008

Starting to add up to some real money

Last week's Globe carried an item that a real estate firm is planning a 5-year, $1 billion dollar, 1.5M square foot biotech complex in Cambridge. Given all the recent news about Gov. Patrick's $1 billion biotech initiative, perhaps Sen Dirksen was right. Predictably, one letter to the editor proposed that the private money obviates the need for the public mone.

Of course, they're addressing two different things, well, mostly. The original biotech proposal was going to be heavily research oriented, but now there is the earmarks for education & earmarks for local infrastructure. The real estate development is going to provide space for future growth, space that the company is hoping will exist.

Real estate in general & biotech specifically are a boom-and-bust phenomenon in Cambridge, though the trend is clearly weighted a bit towards boom. Even before the genomics boom there was a shortage of space & all sorts of old factory space was converted -- one MLNM site was known as the "Box Factory", as it had previously manufactured heart-shaped candy boxes for Valentine's Day. New buildings went up, such as the cluster of current & former MLNM buildings and the Cambridge beachhead for Partners Healthcare's research empire. The really big daddy's were the conversion of a candy factory to the Novartis site & Genzyme's beautiful building. When the tech boom crashed, space intended for companies such as Akamai was hastily converted.

Then the genomics era came crashing down, and suddenly MLNM wasn't gobbling up space but instead dumping it. Sites such as 640 Memorial Drive sat largely vacant, along with many smaller ones. Signs for 'Biotech Space Available'.

The pendulum is apparently closer to boom again, and several biotechs are heading to the suburbs for cheaper rents or more space. Cambridge will never be cheap, that's for sure.

A billion dollars is no pocket change. One unintentionally humorous element in the story was that no clients had been lined up yet -- like anybody in this business can plan 5 years ahead! MLNM got burnt multiple times on shorter term planning -- stuck in a long lease at 640, buildings configured for the wrong mix of chemistry & biology labs, etc.

Biotech buildings have all sorts of additional requirements, many of which I've only recently become aware of. Heavy-duty floors are needed to support equipment. Complicated ventilation infrastructure. Systems to pH neutralize waste water. Some companies have systems to move waste solvents downstairs; Cambridge's fire department has strict limits which grow tighter the higher the floor. Trying to get leeway there is a non-starter; a year and a half ago a non-biotech solvent explosion blew apart a neighborhood in a town north of Boston.

The location is very good; close to a lot of existing biotech, major road routes, and two mass transit lines -- one of which will probably be extended by the middle of the next decade. The area is already congested, but where isn't?

In the image, the Charles River is the dark slash in the lower right corner, and the Genzyme building anchors the lower left corner.
View Larger Map The big parking lot in the center would be a key site, and has begged for redevelopment for a while. The parking lot above it and to the right would also be included -- but also the low rise buildings going diagonally up to the upper left. These are apparently currently low-rent startup space, a useful commodity, but the new buildings will be much taller -- critical in the increasingly crowded biotech zone. A little bit of the space will be restaurant/retail, but with Kendall Square & the Cambridge Galleria nearby, it won't be lacking for eating & errands.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Misadventures in social networking

My one previous foray into social networking sites was LinkedIn. During one of MLNM's scythe-to-the-workforce exercises folks started setting up the sites, and it seemed like a good idea. Growth was slow at first -- which was fine by me as I've set a personal rule only to link to people I can actually remember interacting with. I also tended to only link to those already possessing accounts; little proselytizing for me. At one point though, I invited one person in just so I'd have one link with nothing to do with MLNM. However, Miss Amanda has shown no interest -- I suppose she won't until digital scent technology picks up)

Over time my network has grown & I have found the tool useful. For one, it's a way to keep connected to folks even as email addresses go dead due to job moves or internet provider changes. However, it's hardly foolproof there -- too often someone's LinkedIn account still points at the old email address. There's the related problem of someone having multiple accounts, having lost their access to one because it points to a defunct email. At least the last time I looked, LinkedIn's interface made it hard to distinguish them when you're trying to delete one -- you just see the person's name.

I also found it useful during my post-MLNM job search to scout out a company -- who do I know at company X?

Purely social sites such as MySpace don't have much appeal to me, but particularly in the past year I've gotten exposed to other sites -- usually by someone inviting me in. For example, SciLink is run out of Boston and the founder is a friend-of-a-friend, so we've actually met. This site starts building your network off your publications, a clever trick (though it does make me glad I'm not a John Smith).

For whatever reason, this morning I decided to check out some of those other invites that have been enjoying benign neglect in my email box. One thought was to get some minor fodder for this page. I uncovered the invite for Spock and also one for Doostang and thought about polishing up my SciLink entry.

For whatever reason, I picked Doostang first. Why I don't know. I sure don't understand the name. My quick associations to it are Durmstrang, boomslang & doofus. -- not good associations (I'm more of a Hogwarts partisan & I care not to meet a boomslang up close). But, what's the harm?

So I followed the link someone sent me & set up an account. Wrote up some skeleton information about my days of being blue & crimson and my job experience.

Now most of the sites have some feature to mine your email addresses for possible links. In keeping with past practice, I thought I'd use this to find others already on the site and try to link to them. Yep, just invite them, that's the plan.

The first inkling of disaster came when I got an email. From myself. Inviting me to Doostang. Actually, it wasn't addressed to me -- but to a Boston area informatics mailing list. OOOPS! Major social faux pas.

Then another email. From myself. This time to a company mailing list. Luckily, my colleagues had a sense of humor about it.

Then I check my email box: people are responding fast-and-furious. One person asks if my invite is spam -- hmmm, not quite sure how to answer that. Several are long lost colleagues, relatives & friends -- okay, that's a good thing. Many had nice things to say such as "thank's for thinking of me" -- I'm getting some social credit I probably didn't really earn.

Another is someone who's email address is a simple mutation away from my own -- people misaddress mail to me there. Nice to meet my not-quite-doppelganger, but pretty strange. Wierder is my inadvertant attempt to cozy up with by good buddies at subscriptions (at) -- yeah, they'll love me there!

Luckily, I've gotten out of the habit of debating science with crypto-creationists and have restrained myself from e-arguing with the staff right-winger at the Glob. Who knows how many Nigerian finance whizzes & providers of lists of MDs I'm now linked to! I probably should check my account to see what unsavory types I'm now e-collegial with. Please, no emails inviting me to join a network at!

Well, the damage is done. I'll go easy on Spock & probably just return my invite to Meri Jeevan Kahani linger -- at least until I clear out all those messages from Doostang! I've always been aware I can be a bit socially awkward in real settings; now I get to bring that talent to the instant world of the Internet!

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

When biotech pork doesn't mean GFP spare ribs

Tuesday morning's Globe carries a front page item, with the headline above the fold, outlining the wayward course which Governor Patrick's biotech initiative has taken. Originally outlined as a broad sweep to nurture biotech growth in the Commonwealth with an emphasis on academia, the project has morphed in the Legislature into a set of earmarks.

None of the earmarks are completely devoid of biotech relevance, but they certainly aren't going for broad strokes. $13M for an interchange (near where I live) to relieve commuter congestion around a big Wyeth biopharmaceutical production facility & $13M for a water treatment plant in Framingham which Genzyme needs to support an expanded production plant there. Both will help retain existing biotech facilities which are important employers, but neither of these is likely to drive any growth outside the specific plant targeted (should the Wyeth environs sprout a plethora of omics companies, I will happily figure out a way to eat crow during my exponentially shortened commute!).

Other funds are targeting state university favorites of legislators. U Mass was always going to get a new stem cell repository (which it was pointed out originally was a clever hand to Harvard, which wouldn't mind getting a graceful exit from that business), but the tab is now up to $195M. Nearly $50M will go to build a life science center at a Western Mass school not known for life sciences education; indeed, it doesn't even have a graduate program in the field -- but does have a powerful pol as an alumnus.

University professors & at least one biotech CEO (Genzyme's) are already crying foul, but this is unlikely to have much effect. Massachusetts is effectively a one party state with little involuntary turnover in the Legislature (or the U.S. Congress seats come to think of it). The pols already have retreated to "It's the public money & we have the perogative to spend it!" -- true, but not exactly a justification for how they're spending it.

Who is to blame for the mess? Governor Patrick need look no farther than his mirror. First he made insane estimates of the job creation it would drive -- something in excess of 4X the current employment in the entire existing life sciences sector. Then he burned all his political capital trying to get casino gambling legalized in the state, and then at the moment of the key vote was off to New York signing a book deal rather than corraling a few last votes. With no real leverage, he's at the mercy of the Legislature. The quote in the article suggests that he's ready to sign whatever comes his way, a hollow victory preferable to an honorable defeat.

One thing Patrick clearly underestimated, perhaps because he really is even newer to the state than I am (not quite to the 2 decade mark) is that there is an enormous geographical divide (not that I anticipated it when I initially reacted to it just over a year ago either!). The conditions that favor biotech tend to be in Boston, Cambridge and some surrounding areas -- with Worcester (about 1 hour away) the one other large outpost. Everyone feels that anyone closer to Boston is getting a better deal than they are. So a biotech bill likely to favor the apparently favored was going to have a hard time without a bit of bacon fat to grease the skids -- but once you wave some pancetta before the pols, it's hard to get them to stop.

When biotech pork doesn'

Monday, May 19, 2008

Sherlock Holmes, Omicist

A nice item in GenomeWeb about a new NIH initiative that's just brilliant -- using omics to try to solve rare disease mysteries. I've blogged on this topic before, and it's an obvious way to go -- particularly since the price of these genome studies is dropping so precipitiously.

As noted by the patient named in the report, finding a cause is not (alas!) the same as finding a treatment. But if many patients with mystery diseases are screened, there will almost certainly be some clues that do lead to useful remedies. It is also important to remember that very rare syndromes often shed important light on very common disorders. For example, a large number of rare tumor syndromes have illuminated key cellular mechanisms broadly relevant to tumorigenesis -- von Hippel-Lindau, neurofibromatosis, and many others. Having some molecular clue to the disease is infinitely better than a baffling list of symptoms.

Monday, May 12, 2008

When you care enough to send the very best DNA

Yesterday was Mother's Day, and while searching for a card I spied what looked like a double helix on the front of one card. Finding this odd, I checked the card in detail -- and indeed it was DNA!

DNA is clearly in the public consciousness -- years of Law & Order and CSI have ensured that, but I found it striking that the image of a double helix is deemed recognizable by as mainstream & middlebrow a company as Hallmark.

A nice twist is the card actually bore a message along the lines of 'even though you didn't give me any DNA...' -- a card for mother figures, not birth mothers. So this isn't a sign of rampant DNA deterministic thinking, but rather the imprint of DNA on the public (or at least corporate) mind