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Fall River pushes to lure life sciences, tech

New life-sciences ‘accelerator,’ tech park are keys

“I keep waiting for someone to tell me this is a dumb idea, but I haven’t heard that from anyone,” says UMass’s Paul Vigeant.

DEBEE TLUMACKI FOR THE GLOBE

“I keep waiting for someone to tell me this is a dumb idea, but I haven’t heard that from anyone,” says UMass’s Paul Vigeant.

So far, Innovation Way in Fall River is not exactly the Silicon Valley of the South Coast. The new road cuts through a thick forest where visitors are more likely to encounter wildlife than commercial activity.

But officials hope a sleek new building near the road’s intersection with Route 24 will spark a momentous change.

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The Massachusetts Accelerator for Biomanufacturing is scheduled to open this fall as one of the world’s only facilities designed to incubate companies engaged in early-stage drug development. The $30 million complex, developed by the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, is an experiment not just in bioscience, but also in the broader economic development of Southeastern Massachusetts.

“I keep waiting for someone to tell me this is a dumb idea, but I haven’t heard that from anyone,” said Paul Vigeant, an assistant chancellor at the university. “We’re getting a lot of interest from clients who want to use this facility.”

Fall River officials hope the initial burst of interest will translate into construction of full-size manufacturing plants and other businesses in a planned 300-acre park off Route 24. Officials have not yet announced any tenants for the biomanufacturing facility. In the meantime, the city is working with the real estate firm NAI Hunneman to market the park to medical and technology-oriented companies.

“This is one of the few available sites in Massachusetts where someone could build
1 million square feet,” said Michael DiGiano, an executive vice president for NAI Hunneman. “And the land prices in Fall River are going to be 20 to 40 percent less than in the Boston metropolitan area.”

Overall, the park has state approval for 3 million square feet of development, and officials are promising 30-day permitting for companies that agree to move there. So far, the property has attracted construction of a 42-acre solar farm and a facility by Neo Energy LLC of Portsmouth, N.H., that will convert food waste into energy.

Governor Deval Patrick’s administration has invested tens of millions of dollars to help turn the property into a major center for life sciences and technology companies. It spent about $38 million in federal stimulus funds to help build a highway ramp into the property from Route 24 and has invested $14.6 million to fund construction of the biomanufacturing accelerator.

Greg Bialecki, Patrick’s chief of housing and economic development, said the region has already proved to be an attractive location for an array of biomedical companies, with firms such as Meditech Inc. and Celldex Therapeutics Inc. located in Fall River.

Several other medical device makers are in New Bedford, Raynham, and other South Coast municipalities.

“We think this is a natural progression of the industry in that part of the state,” Bialecki said. “The proof will be when we see some large biomanufacturing users down there, and we’re still working very hard on that.”

The biomanufacturing accelerator is attracting attention in the industry. It is the only facility of its kind in the United States, with four laboratory suites that will allow emerging companies to test their production methods and scale up manufacturing of new drugs.

Typically, such work can cost more than $1 million a month, but the accelerator will offer below-market rents that allow companies to do the work for less than half that amount.

“Lowering the bar for start-ups certainly has the potential to have a positive impact,” said Kevin Gorman, managing director of Putnam Associates, a Burlington consultant to life-sciences companies. “As the costs of real estate have escalated dramatically in Cambridge, firms have begun to look farther afield.”

Fall River is about an hour’s drive from Kendall Square in Cambridge, which boasts one of the largest concentrations of biotechnology companies in the world. And like Kendall Square, the city is close to more than a dozen colleges, including Brown and the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, that turn out 15,000 graduates a year.

Vigeant, the assistant chancellor at UMass Dartmouth, said he expects the biomanufacturing accelerator to host up to 18 companies a year, allowing them to work on complex treatments for cancer and other chronic diseases. He said that initial interest is coming not just from start-ups, but from more mature companies, as well.

“A couple have asked to use the facility as swing space to augment their existing capacity in Massachusetts,” he said. “The interest is really running the full gamut.”

That’s good news to officials in Fall River, who are counting on the park to replace bygone manufacturing businesses and help generate jobs and tax revenue.

“This truly is a unique building, and it gives us the prestige of being a player in this field,” said Ken Fiola of Fall River’s economic development office. “Now it’s our job to capitalize on that.”

Casey Ross can be reached at casey.ross@globe.com.
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