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Strength in biotech

By From the Boston Globe

By Martin T. Meehan  

POLITICAL ADAGES sometimes apply to governing as well. "Playing to your strengths" is one that does, and Governor Deval Patrick has wisely played to the state's strengths with his recent biotechnology proposal.

Massachusetts is home to one of every 50 residents in the nation, but has one of every seven jobs in the biotech industry -- it is a biotech supercluster. The Patrick proposal, which the Senate is backing and House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi supports, plays to that economic strength and the strength of our public research university, UMass, to maintain and sustain this competitive advantage.

Some would say that state tax dollars should not be targeted to a particular industry and that the Commonwealth should follow the US government's lead by funding academic research that uncovers new principles or groundbreaking ideas.

Let the US government fully fund such basic research. States should invest in research that helps today's ideas become tomorrow's jobs. As Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Steven Panagiotakos, said in releasing the Senate's budget proposal last week, "We need to promote and cultivate emerging technology."

In playing to our biotech strength, we aren't choosing an industry; it chose us. We have the "natural resources" the industry needs. Bay Staters are the most well educated in the country, we are home to the world's best teaching hospitals and hosts of venture capitalists, and our higher education institutions -- geared toward an innovation economy -- can ensure we have the well-trained workforce the industry requires.

The Patrick biotech plan nurtures this environment. By helping small companies move through development stages that only large companies can afford, the plan enhances the free market rather than restricts it.

The University of Massachusetts can ensure that research doesn't begin and end in the laboratory. Biotech is now moving from R&D toward production. At UMass-Lowell, where I am headed this July, engineers are focused on helping biotech companies overcome obstacles to production, thereby creating a culture of manufacturing new biopharmaceuticals in Massachusetts. Already, Bristol-Myers-Squibb and Wyeth have located or expanded manufacturing operations here.

One example of a successful model is the Massachusetts BioManufacturing Center, established several years ago at Lowell. The BMC has helped some 20 biotech companies bridge the gap from research to manufacturing. It is helping smaller R&D firms develop manufacturing processes applicable for drug development without an upfront million-dollar commitment.

Last year, the Legislature backed this concept by funding a new nano- and biomanufacturing building at UMass-Lowell and a bioprocessing facility at UMass-Dartmouth, and by investing in a new Life Sciences Investment Fund, which would be used in part to expand the reach of the BMC statewide. The BMC approach involves all of Massachusetts. An analysis shows that its approach could result in 10 new manufacturing plants and 8,000 new jobs -- jobs that are perhaps more likely to be located in Lawrence or Springfield than in Cambridge, as companies seek low-cost, but nearby, locations for manufacturing plants.

Similarly, the Massachusetts Medical Device Development Center -- a collaboration between UMass-Lowell and the UMass Medical School -- is helping entrepreneurs and inventors develop ideas for new medical devices. This center, too, could tap the Life Sciences fund for support. The aim is to bring companies to the venture capitalist's door rather than open it for them. Recent data show that the venture capitalist climate has changed in the past several years. No longer will investors fund or even consider ideas brought to them in the early stages of development. The result: medical device patents perishing on the shelf.

The State House plan would invest up to $250 million into the Life Sciences fund over the next 10 years. The time is right for this investment. While the biotech industry originally chose us, other states -- and countries -- are pursuing it. North Carolina has invested in the industry for decades, while Singapore recently invested $8 billion in research, development, and manufacturing.

What the state's leadership understands is you have to play to win. And this biotech proposal will win jobs for our citizens and revenues for our coffers.

US Representative Martin T. Meehan has been named chancellor of UMass-Lowell.