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As biotech giants convene, Massachusetts stands out

Today, biotech companies from around the world will descend on Boston to show off their wares. The Bio International Convention is a chance for Massachusetts to tout its decisive edge in this lucrative industry. Over the past two years, Greater Boston has received more funding for biotech research and start-up companies than any other region in the country. “Massachusetts is the leading life sciences cluster in the country at this point,” says Bruce Booth of Atlas Venture, an investor in science innovation. While other biotech hubs lost research and development jobs during the financial crisis, jobs here rose from 46,380 in 2008 to 48,647 in 2010, according to the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council.

This success didn’t come about by accident. For years, state and city leaders have worked hard to woo the industry, despite opposition from some lawmakers who felt the government shouldn’t play such an active role. In 2007, Governor Deval Patrick announced a 10-year, $1 billion life sciences initiative to help the state corner the biotech market. The initative gives hefty matching grants to industry-sponsored research and tax credits and sales tax exemptions to life sciences companies. Although the financial crisis has caused both government spending and job growth to be slower than expected, the $300 million of public money invested so far has attracted $938 million in private investment, according to the quasi-public Massachusetts Life Sciences Center. The Center says the investments have created 8,750 direct jobs, many of them in construction work on new labs.

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Cities have also done their part. Boston’s waterfront Innovation District offers affordable space, low-interest loans and Silver Line bus service to South Station. The local and state efforts are working: Small companies like Immunetics, which makes diagnostic kits for Lyme disease, are expanding. The Dana-Farber Cancer Institute is establishing a new research facility. Vertex Pharmaceuticals has embarked upon a massive, 1.1 million-square-foot facility.

But one troubling statistic mars this rosy picture: the plateauing of biotech manufacturing jobs, which have hovered around 9,000 for the last five years, compared with 21,000 in Pennsylvania, 43,000 in California and 20,000 in North Carolina. While companies invent drugs in the research labs of Boston, they tend to produce them somewhere else.

But that, too, could change. Wise planning by local leaders and UMass Dartmouth has paved the way for a new biopark in Fall River where companies will be able to cheaply test their prototypes and perfect the manufacturing process. Meanwhile, Worcester, which has long been a leader on this issue, is opening a new bio-manufacturing training center at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute at Gateway Park.

This success didn’t come about by accident.

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Educational facilities like this one — as well as better math and science education in middle school — are crucial for Massachusetts to maintain its biotech edge. As China and India begin to lure more scientific talent, Massachusetts must do all it can to ensure that its native workforce is prepared for jobs in this industry.

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