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Good Pill Hunting: How Biotech Fell In Love With Beantown

Tomas Kellner
May 14, 2018
Boston is home to what might be the world’s premier biotechnology cluster. It includes big pharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer and Sanofi, plucky upstarts such as Editas Medicine, a gene-editing company, and many research labs. GE’s own biotechnology business, GE Healthcare Life Sciences, recently moved its U.S. headquarters into the area. (The parent company relocated to Boston too.)
So why do biotech and drug companies find Boston special? We reached out to Travis McCready, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, a $1 billion public–private partnership with the mission of advancing the life sciences ecosystem in Massachusetts. Here’s an edited version of our conversation.

Boston, Massachusett Top: "We have a history of discovery and disruption, whether it’s in the social sector, science or humanities," says Travis McCready, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center. Image credit: MLSC  Above: Boston is home to what might be the world’s premier biotechnology cluster. Image credit: Getty Images

GE Reports: Why is Boston so attractive to biotech companies?

Travis McCready: We have a history of discovery and disruption, whether it’s in the social sector, science or humanities. We also have a history of attracting people interested in figuring things out. We don't really care about the money too terribly much, unless it’s important to fueling the research. We're in it for the discovery.

GER: That’s a very romantic view. But what would investors say?

TM: They would agree. I'm an old-school economic development guy. I've spent my career trying to understand places, and I do believe that places have as much of a personality as you and I. Massachusetts makes all the different parts of the ecosystem function in a way that’s fueling the life-sciences economy here. That's the secret sauce.

GER: Still, why biotech?

TM: We have to go back to the early 1970s. Back then, Harvard started experimenting with recombinant DNA—essentially splicing together genetic material from different sources. The city of Cambridge had to decide whether it would allow Harvard to build a facility dedicated to the research at the edge of a residential neighborhood.

GER: How did the industry react?

TM: At the time, folks in the biotech industry were appropriately skeptical. They thought that the government was trying to regulate something it didn’t understand. But it actually had the opposite effect. What came out of that conversation were the country’s first citywide zoning laws that addressed the development of biotech facilities. They created rules and architecture that was for the first time predictable.

 width= A researcher taking a sample from GE's Xcellerex bioreactor. Image credit: GE Healthcare Life Sciences.

GER: What were some of the first companies?

TM: Most of them did not survive. Many got acquired and the people went on to start other companies. MIT’s technology-transfer division, the country’s first exclusively focused on life sciences, spawned hundreds of companies by itself. That’s another part of the story line.

GER: What about Big Pharma? Did they come, too?

TM: Companies like Novartis were part of the second wave. They were an early adopter of the idea that biomedical research could be outsourced to an ecosystem.

GER: What do you mean?

TM: You no longer have to have all your scientists behind a garden wall, hoping that they will innovate. Instead, you can locate to an ecosystem that is replete with scientists and capture some of the activity that’s taking place there naturally. The Novartis office opened here in 2002 with just five employees. They placed a bet that they would be able to piggyback on the vibrancy of the local cluster. Today they have 2,500 employees, and their presence in Cambridge is larger than back home in Switzerland.

GER: Right, but you also have companies here like Boston Scientific and GE Healthcare Life Science, which do not develop new treatments but build medical equipment. What role do they play?

TM: A very critical one. GE devices and manufacturing processes are in 90 percent of the biopharma companies here. They are kind of ubiquitous. GE also knows how to manufacture large protein molecules, which are the core of a new class of drugs called biologics. Most of the bestselling drugs like Herceptin or Prevnar are biologics, and the class will account for half of all new therapies by 2020. Large molecules are essentially what we are working on in Massachusetts. If you don't have the innovative diagnostic and bioprocessing support to manufacture these therapies commercially, then what the heck is the point of the discovery in the first place?

 width= GE's KUbio modular biotech factory. Image credit: GE Healthcare Life Sciences.

GER: Tell me about the technologies that bring R&D and production together?

TM: GE’s KUbio modular factory for making biologics is one example. You can start small and scale up. We've seen an incredible uptick in the number of small biotech companies that have been engaged in clinical production. In the past, the biggest obstacles were money and size. For a venture-funded company, the prospect of burning $150 million to $200 million to buy a 200,000-square-foot site is incredibly daunting. It’s a conversation that, generally speaking, does not go well with their investors. With KUbio, you can have a turnkey solution that costs less than $80 million and fits inside 22,000 square feet. In my opinion, that's a game-changing value proposition for small-scale biotech companies.

GER: Take a look past 2020. Where is the industry going?

TM: That sort of prognostication is really dangerous. The things that I see out there that are both promising and controversial include gene editing and gene creation. I am also excited about improving our understanding of the microbiome in our guts. I'm old school in that I do believe that our grandmothers were right. We are what we eat. As we more deeply understand what's happening in our guts, I think that will be borne out to be true.