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New complex unites Vertex employees

$800m waterfront headquarters brings 1,200 employees together for the first time

Spaces for informal gatherings are dotted throughout Vertex Pharmaceuticals’ halls.

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff

Spaces for informal gatherings are dotted throughout Vertex Pharmaceuticals’ halls.

A tile mosaic depicting a medicine’s chemical formula greets visitors in the lobby. Upstairs, in office space flooded with natural light, employees sit on brightly covered swivel chairs and lean against pillows decorated with elements from the periodic table. And as Ping-Pong players volley outside the cafeteria on a Friday afternoon, dozens of their colleagues gather for the weekly beer hour.

Welcome to the new $800 million headquarters of Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc. on the South Boston Waterfront, where about 1,200 of the drug maker’s research and commercial employees have been united for the first time, in two glass-faced towers connected by a walkway.

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The complex formally opens Tuesday at a ribbon-cutting Governor Deval Patrick and Mayor Martin J. Walsh are scheduled to attend. It represents the first move of a major life sciences company from Cambridge to Boston’s growing Innovation District, and many see it as a catalyst to accelerate the biomedical industry expansion outside Kendall Square.

“There’s something exciting about being there at the beginning of a new hub,” said chief executive Jeffrey M. Leiden, who plans to work to attract other biotech and high-tech businesses to the waterfront through the Massachusetts Competitiveness Partnership.

Despite the buzz over Vertex, however, there is little evidence that many large biotechnology companies are preparing to abandon Cambridge any time soon. Even as Vertex was completing plans for the move across the Charles River last fall, the biotech giant Biogen Idec Inc. was opening two new buildings on its Kendall Square campus and moving its corporate headquarters back from suburban Weston. Biogen Idec has scheduled a grand opening reception at its new executive offices next week.

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For the 25-year-old Vertex, a company known for developing treatments for hepatitis C and the chronic lung disease cystic fibrosis, the new complex on Boston’s Fan Pier brings together far-flung employees long housed in a warren of former factories and offices stretching along the industrial corridor from Cambridgeport to Kendall Square. Many had never met each other before or had interacted only occasionally at company gatherings.

“I had lunch with a chemist today that I’ve hardly seen for five years,” said Jim Hogan, a research fellow who helped design the company’s molecular pharmacology lab. “He sat down next to me at lunch and we started talking about one of the projects we’re working on.”

But the headquarters isn’t as full as Vertex once anticipated. While the plan was always to leave room for expansion — the complex is 75 to 80 percent occupied — about 175 Boston-area employees who expected to make the move were laid off last fall as part of a round of cuts that cost 370 Vertex workers worldwide their jobs. The reductions followed disclosure that sales of the company’s hepatitis C drug Incivek were declining faster than projected. Even with the cutback, Vertex has been one of the fastest-growing drug makers, adding more than 800 jobs in Massachusetts since 2004.

The largest contingent of Boston-area employees, about 1,000, moved to the waterfront after Christmas.

The company deployed 120 moving trucks to haul 12,000 crates loaded with 5,500 pieces of laboratory equipment. Most began work in their new offices Jan. 6. More than 100 other workers who remain in Cambridge or in temporary quarters next door on Fan Pier will move to the headquarters in coming weeks.

Vertex has been planning its new headquarters complex for several years, deputizing a 40-employee “engagement team” to make design recommendations. Members of the team visited the campuses of Google Inc., Apple Inc., and Pixar Animation Studios in California.

The amenities they proposed ranged from an in-house gym and 205-seat auditorium to ground-floor retailers — such as a bank, dry cleaner, and coffee shop — to an outdoor patio off the cafeteria where employees can congregate in warmer weather. The cafeteria is so stocked with gourmet food options that fitness-conscious employees already are warning of the “Fan Pier 15,” an allusion to the feared weight gain of those not taking advantage of the gym.

Executives are hoping the new campus, with its stunning views of Boston Harbor, will help Vertex recruit and retain talented scientists and managers who are bored with Kendall Square.

Vertex has also set up a “learning lab,” with 3,000 square feet of classroom and laboratory space, for use by students from two nearby Boston public schools — Excel High School and Boston Green Academy — some of whom will be groomed for work as Vertex interns and, eventually, employees. Vertex has tapped Carl Reid, a former industry scientist and teacher with a PhD in microbiology and molecular biology, to run the lab and work with the students.

“The idea is to get them excited about science,” Reid said. “A lot of time the teachers don’t have the supplies or equipment or the space to do the experiments they’d like.”

Robert Weisman can be reached at robert.weisman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRobW.
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