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Innovation economy

Why we’re a magnet for life sciences

Everywhere I’ve been this summer, it seems I’ve met someone who was pulled to Boston by the life sciences industry. The Frenchman with whom I shared a lunch table at a conference, who moved here to work at Genzyme’s Kendall Square office in Cambridge. The businessman next to me on a red-eye flight home from San Diego, who worked for a California company that had just been bought by Thermo Fisher Scientific, a maker of laboratory equipment in Waltham. The entrepreneur from Silicon Valley who sold his company to PerkinElmer, another lab equipment giant in Waltham. The researcher from Glasgow here for a yearlong fellowship in the hospital hive at Longwood.

From the 1960s through the 1990s, Massachusetts was a magnet for tech talent of all kinds: software whizzes, chip designers, and the architects of mainframes and minicomputers. Even into the dot-com era, local companies like Monster.com, Lycos, and CMGI were drawing Web-savvy workers to the state.

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But after the Nasdaq crash of 2001, everything changed. Now, life sciences and health care are what attract the smartest people around the world to Massachusetts, and the tech industry is still trying to figure out what hit it.

We should, of course, be much more braggadocious about our life sciences dominance, which has only been building since 2002. (More on that date in a moment.)

“Once you reach critical mass, the reaction just tends to feed on itself,” says Daniel Marshak, chief scientific officer of PerkinElmer. “Now that you have big pharmaceutical companies here, biotech companies, medical device companies, and great academic institutions, it sucks in more and more and more.”

Incidentally, Marshak moved here in 2006 to take a job at PerkinElmer, which makes everything from instruments for doing prenatal health screening to software that can paint 3-D pictures of a what’s going on inside a lab rat.

The year life sciences took the baton from tech was 2002, as the dot-coms were dying of starvation. That was when the Swiss biopharma company Novartis hired a prominent cardiology researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital and said it would invest $250 million to establish a major research facility in Central Square. Today, Novartis is the largest corporate employer in Cambridge, with about 2,000 people — and it continues to grow.

These days, there’s a sense of building momentum in life sciences as firms expand.

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“Novartis coming here was a catalytic event,” says Michael Gilman, a longtime biotech entrepreneur and executive. “It was the first of the big pharma companies to say, ‘We want to be in Boston and Cambridge.’ ”

These days, there’s a sense of building momentum.

PerkinElmer is expanding its Center for Personalized Health Innovation in Hopkinton this fall, nearly doubling its size to 200,000 square feet. In June, Johnson & Johnson held the official opening of an innovation center in Cambridge that is intended to strike up collaborations with academics and start-ups.

So far this year, eight Massachusetts biotech companies have either gone public or have said they plan to do so. Vertex Pharmaceuticals, which makes drugs to treat cystic fibrosis and hepatitis C, is colonizing the Boston waterfront for life sciences companies, building a vast new headquarters. Biogen Idec, based in Kendall Square, already operates a bus to bring employees in from Worcester and Framingham, and may add a loop to New Hampshire. The drug maker’s chief executive moved here in 2010 from San Francisco. Biogen Idec’s head of research and development relocated from Seattle.

That is what you call gravitational pull. Executives and entrepreneurs come here willingly because they know it won’t be hard to find their next job, and the job after that, says Gilman. Companies move here “because of the great talent — not because it’s cheap,” says Marshak.

And while the industry isn’t a huge employer, a recent study by the trade group MassBio found the average salary in biopharma is $115,290, which is 89 percent higher than the average in Massachusetts overall.

The tech industry, since 2002, has been a magnet of a different kind.

Yes, the Boston start-up scene is vibrant. But there just aren’t home-grown tech companies bringing hundreds or thousands of skilled new residents to the state in the way outfits like Lotus Development, Digital Equipment, and Wang Laboratories once did. Instead, Massachusetts has been attracting West Coast behemoths such as Amazon, Apple, Twitter, Oracle, and Microsoft, who have bought companies, opened branches, and started scooping up people like a shopper on a Sunday run to Trader Joe’s.

What happened?

In the late 20th century, developing technology was incredibly time — and resource — intensive. Hardware and software had to be built from scratch. Most of the customers were senior information technology executives at large companies.

When technology cycles began spinning faster and Regular Joes became important as buyers, Massachusetts fell behind. One key factor: In California, tech employees get rich by jumping from one successful company to help build another (leaving Google to work at Facebook, for example.) In Massachusetts, they often get sued for doing that, because of noncompete agreements most companies require employees to sign.

Sometimes, you find a single person who perfectly represents a shift.

Kent Quirk grew up in Connecticut, went to college in New Hampshire, and came to Massachusetts in 1982 for an entry-level job at Wang Laboratories, a pioneer of office word-processing systems. He later worked for Lotus, a Cambridge firm that helped introduce digital spreadsheets and e-mail to the workplace. By 2007, Quirk was at the Cambridge outpost of Linden Lab, a San Francisco developer of a Web-based virtual world called SecondLife. Over time, he says, it became clear that “you couldn’t really advance in the company if you were in a remote office.”

Quirk wanted to stay in the video game industry, and he had a friend from Massachusetts who had moved to San Francisco to work for a company, Playdom, that designed games for mobile devices and Facebook.

“His pitch was, ‘Come on out. At least it’ll be a free vacation,’ ” Quirk recalls. He took a job at Playdom in 2010 and moved west.

“I left Massachusetts reluctantly,” he says. “I still hope to get back there someday.”

Today, Massachusetts is a vacuum cleaner for life sciences talent from around the world. In tech, it’s more like a leaf blower.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.
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