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Skilled work force was key factor for Bristol-Myers

By From the Lowell Sun

By REBECCA FATER, Sun Statehouse Bureau
Lowell Sun

LOWELL -- The sprawling biopharmaceutical facility planned for Devens will likely need 350 new manufacturing employees to get it off the ground.

And UMass Lowell plans to be ready to answer the call.

The $266 million reconstruction plan the university rolled out two months ago includes a biotechnology center to train students specifically for the kinds of jobs that will be needed at the new Bristol-Myers Squibb plant, UMass Lowell Chancellor William Hogan said yesterday.

Bristol-Myers Squibb announced late Thursday that it will build a 750,000-square-foot plant at Devens to manufacture its products. The company chose Massachusetts over New York, Rhode Island and North Carolina.

The state's cluster of universities investing -- or planning to invest -- in biotechnology programs, including UMass Lowell, was a big factor in why Bristol-Myers Squibb decided to build at Devens, company spokesman Jeff McDonald said yesterday.

Bristol-Myers Squibb develops medicines created with materials derived from organic cells -- which is different than the way most companies used to make drugs, by simply mixing chemicals.

"It requires a lot more specialized skills to produce," said McDonald. "For that skilled work, there needs to be (education programs), and there's a lot of (such) programs in Massachusetts."

While Cambridge has captured much of the research for biopharmeceuticals, Hogan said, UMass Lowell decided years ago to focus on the part of the market that the state was still lacking: the skilled labor to manufacture the drugs that are discovered.

"The discovery of a drug takes enormous investment and research," Hogan said. "We've decided once the breakthrough has occurred to help develop the process, the technique for manufacturing in large quantities."

UMass Lowell faculty member Carl Lawton has been overseeing the university's biotechnology development plans. He, along with representatives from other universities in Greater Boston, met with Bristol-Myers Squibb officials months ago to talk to the company about the advantages Massachusetts and its universities hold.

Bristol-Myers Squibb was convinced. Construction is expected to begin in September, with the plant scheduled to begin operation in 2009.