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Harvard, MIT, others advance $100m biologics manufacturing center in Watertown

Project aims to expedite promising treatments, spur collaboration in the life sciences

Harvard and MIT are investing in a biomanufacturing plant that will be built in this brick structure off Beacon Street in Watertown.
Harvard and MIT are investing in a biomanufacturing plant that will be built in this brick structure off Beacon Street in Watertown.Courtesy of Alexandria Real Estate Equities

A coalition of universities, hospitals, and major life-sciences companies in the region is announcing on Thursday that it has picked a site in the Arsenal on the Charles complex in Watertown for a new $100 million biologics manufacturing and innovation center.

The project, spearheaded by Harvard and backed by MIT and others, would aim to expedite discoveries for biotech treatments in university labs by allowing researchers to bypass the long waits that are common at contract manufacturers.

The lead corporate funders include Fujifilm’s biotech arm, the GE life-sciences spinoff Cytiva, and Alexandria Real Estate Equities.

Along with several major research hospitals in Boston and MilliporeSigma, a lab supplier, the partners have raised $76 million so far. Richard McCullough, Harvard’s vice provost for research, said he expects the project, currently known as the Massachusetts Center for Advanced Biological Innovation and Manufacturing, will need about $100 million for construction and five years of operations, after factoring in expected revenues. He said the search continues for additional partners.

“We wanted to bring together amazing partners with the idea we would help clear up this bottleneck so these new innovations could get to patients much sooner, and provide manufacturing services for startups,” McCullough said. “This is a true partnership between industry and academia that’s really unique. There’s really nothing I know of that is like it.”

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The coalition, known by its initials as CABIM, has secured 40,000 square feet on two floors in a brick building off Beacon Street in the Alexandria-owned Arsenal complex. The hope is to start renovations in time to begin opening the center a year from now. Eventually, about 40 people will be employed there.

The partners would get to use the manufacturing center at a reduced cost, or possibly for free; they also plan on making it available to outside biotech firms and other researchers for a fee. While expediting the development of promising treatments from “bench to bedside,” the center would also be a job-training site for everyone from entry-level technicians to PhD candidates, McCullough said.

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The project has been in the works for at least two years and was formally announced in late 2019. At that point, the partners did not know where the center would be built. Harvard’s new enterprise research campus planned for land it owns in Allston was considered as a possible site, but the first phase of that campus won’t be done in time.

The Baker administration has helped with planning, through the state’s housing and economic development office and the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, with a particular focus on the project’s workforce-training potential. No state subsidies have been approved yet, but it’s possible they could be at some point.

Emmanuel Ligner, chief executive of Danaher-owned Cytiva, said his company wanted to participate because of the immense potential for collaboration with high-profile academic and hospital partners. With its North American hub in Marlborough, Cytiva is on an expansion path in Massachusetts: It opened a new bioreactor plant in Shrewsbury last month and is in the process of hiring 200 people in the state.

“For us, if we have new technologies coming, it’s a place where you can beta test [them],” Ligner said of the Watertown plant. “It’s a place where you can get opinions from Harvard and MIT . . . There’s an absolute need to collaborate. Nobody can do it alone.”

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Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.