Massachusetts has made its way over the past half-dozen years to being an undisputed leader in biotechnology and life sciences research. Now it faces an entirely different challenge: staying there.
Cities and states across the country and around the world have escalated their long-simmering efforts to poach from this region’s concentration of biotech startups and pharmaceutical mega-companies.
California has a new tax break. Texas is spending hundreds of millions of dollars to position itself as “the third coast” of biomedical research. South Korea is building laboratories and looking for scientists to fill them.
“I’m sweating,” said Robert Coughlin, chief executive of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, after spending hours promoting Massachusetts at the BIO International Convention in San Diego last week. “It’s hard to stay on top. Either you continue to improve or you go backwards.”
Massachusetts has long been a research hub for the life sciences, boasting world-class universities, teaching hospitals, and other institutions, but in recent years it has achieved new heights.
Pharmaceutical giants such as Novartis and Pfizer have built major research centers here, homegrown companies including Vertex Pharmaceuticals and Biogen Idec have introduced successful drugs, and startups have sprung up to advance new technologies and therapies.
The state is six years into the Life Sciences Initiative, a $1 billion, decadelong public spending program that offers grants, loans, and other funding for the industry.
“There’s a buzz about Massachusetts right now in the whole marketplace,” said Fritz Bittenbender, executive vice president of public affairs for the Biotechnology Industry Organization in Washington.
But the competition is everywhere.
California, home to big life sciences clusters in San Francisco and San Diego, recently enacted a tax break with the biotechnology sector in mind. Within two years, it will offer companies a total of $200 million a year to relocate to or expand in California.
“Anything we can do in California to assist companies with high . . . costs is a win,” said Gail Maderis, chief executive of BayBio, the San Francisco area’s biotech industry group.
Newer but fast-growing players such as Florida and Georgia are also offering programs to lure life sciences companies — on top of business costs that are lower than in Massachusetts and California.
At the just concluded BIO convention, Georgia cut a particularly high profile, leasing an aircraft carrier to host a lavish party with food, cocktails, and entertainment. But in addition to the free drinks, Georgia, home to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pledges to offer one of the most valuable commodities to the industry: skilled workers.
Georgia is building a $14 million BioScience Training Center, where it expects to train 1,500 people by 2018.
This will help the state compete with other places — including Boston — that have a deeper pool of talent, said Philip Gibson, the director of the center.
“We can tell companies, ‘We will deliver the workforce for you,’ ” Gibson said.
Meanwhile, Texas is flush with money from a federal grant to develop vaccines and other medicines and is spending $300 million a year to boost research into cancer alone.
At a therapeutics manufacturing center at Texas A&M University, the state is offering FDA-approved mobile clean rooms, built with state funds, which researchers and companies can lease or buy as they start their ventures — instead of building their own costly facilities.
As a bonus, the clean rooms are portable and can be transported to other locations.
“It’s a new concept,” said Susan Vestal, senior vice president of the Research Valley Partnership, a publicly funded economic development group in College Station, Texas, the home of Texas A&M.
“The state recognized the opportunity and made a commitment to put in infrastructure to change the way we do life sciences. We’re definitely a pioneer in this.”
On the other side of the world, the government of South Korea is building a tech and biotech research park in Seoul and seeking companies to fill it, while Malaysia is waiving all income taxes for a decade for many biotech firms.
France, the home of Sanofi, the parent of Cambridge-based Genzyme Corp., is putting millions of dollars into a new biomanufacturing facility.
So how will Massachusetts stay on top?
Analysts say it starts with an advantage — a unique mix of universities, hospitals, entrepreneurs, and venture capital — and state officials are promoting that advantage, including at last week’s convention.
The Massachusetts Life Sciences Center has about $465 million left to spend over the next four years on various grants, loans, and other incentives. Last week, the center launched grants for Massachusetts companies that collaborate on research with companies and institutions abroad.
A new grant program designed to help companies move to Massachusetts is in the works, said Susan Windham-Bannister, the center’s chief executive.
“We need to stay the course,” she said. “We need to make sure there aren’t any gaps.”
State officials also have tweaked their marketing strategy. This year, they started pitching the “Red Line Corridor” — the area along the subway route that connects Harvard, MIT, the University of Massachusetts Boston, Kendall Square, and Boston’s Innovation District — as a life sciences growth zone.
“We need to up our game if we need to stay on top,” said Coughlin, of MassBio. “I remember when a lot of high-tech companies left for Silicon Valley. We cannot let that happen to this industry.”
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