State Senator Joseph Boncore was named the new head of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council on Wednesday, making him the third consecutive current or former legislator to run the trade group for the state’s booming biotechnology industry.
After conducting what it called a seven-month nationwide search that considered 150 candidates and enlisted an executive search firm, MassBio announced that the Winthrop Democrat will become its new chief executive.
He succeeds Robert Coughlin, a former undersecretary for business development in the Patrick administration who previously represented Dedham in the state House of Representatives. Coughlin was president and chief executive of MassBio for 13 years until early this year, when he joined the JLL brokerage team as managing director in the firm’s life sciences industry.
Boncore, 39, plans to submit his letter of resignation to the Senate next week and start working at MassBio in mid-September. He said it was an honor to join the trade group and that he understands the importance of the life sciences industry. His twin sons spent more than four months in a neonatal intensive care unit after they were born 25 weeks prematurely in October 2019.
“I know first-hand how critical the research and development of the new treatments and cures are to the well-being of patients here and around the world,” he said in a statement.
Pam Randhawa, vice chair of the MassBio board and co-chair of the search committee, said the nonprofit organization interviewed candidates with expertise in public affairs, communications, and the life sciences and found “Joe to be the best suited to take on this role.”
Media outlets first reported that Boncore had emerged as a leading candidate for the job nearly two months ago. His candidacy raised eyebrows among some industry observers who had advocated for MassBio to appoint a woman or person of color, particularly since the trade group itself pushed for more diversity in the life sciences work force under Coughlin.
“Unfortunately, I’m not surprised anymore,” Andrea Silbert, president of the Eos Foundation, told the Globe in July when she learned that a white male legislator was a leading candidate. Her nonprofit focuses on women’s pay and power gaps.
MassBio announced Wednesday that Kendalle Burlin O’Connell, the chief operating officer who was elevated to president last year, “will work in partnership with Joe” as part of a “joint leadership team.” She will continue to oversee membership, programming, and other services and hold the titles of chief operating officer and president.
Randhawa said in July that splitting Coughlin’s titles of chief executive and president among two people ― with O’Connell continuing as president ― would demonstrate MassBio’s commitment to diversity at the top.
MassBio has a nearly two-decade tradition of turning to well-connected politicians to run the group.
Coughlin had succeeded former House speaker Thomas M. Finneran in 2007 after the latter was forced to quit following a guilty plea to a felony obstruction-of-justice charge. The charge stemmed from a court case about Finneran’s testimony about his influence and participation in the legislative redistricting process following the 2000 census. Finneran had led MassBio since 2004 and was earning an annual salary of about $416,000, plus bonuses, when he resigned.
As the public face of the state’s high-flying biopharma industry, the head of MassBio has traditionally been well paid for serving as one of Massachusetts’ most influential lobbyists. Coughlin received more than $1.1 million in 2018, including bonuses and other compensation, according to the most recent available federal tax documents.
A MassBio spokeswoman declined to say what Boncore will earn but said it “will be commensurate with an association that represents 1,400 companies in a thriving industry that is one of the leading drivers of the state’s economy.”
MassBio was founded in 1985 and represents one of the most robust biopharma hubs in the world. Eighteen of the top 20 biopharmaceutical companies have a presence in the state, including Pfizer, which last December got the US Food and Drug Administration to authorize the first COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use. A week later, drug regulators cleared the second such vaccine, which was developed by Cambridge-based Moderna.
MassBio, which is based in the same office building complex as Moderna in Cambridge’s Technology Square, has an annual budget of $12 million and 25 full-time employees.
Despite the pandemic — or because of it, in the case of companies such as Moderna — the state’s biopharma hub has flourished. Biopharma employment in Massachusetts grew at a rate of 5.5 percent in 2020, reaching nearly 85,000 jobs, according to a recent MassBio report. That total is a 92 percent increase over the last 15 years and helps explain why Massachusetts is among the leading biotech hubs in the world.
Boncore, who joined the Senate in 2016 after winning a special election, is Senate chair of the Legislature’s joint Transportation Committee and Senate chair of the Massachusetts Biotech Caucus. He has advocated modernizing the MBTA, including replacing aging Silver Line buses with electric buses to reduce pollution, particularly in communities like Chelsea and East Boston.
He is a graduate of Providence College and the Massachusetts School of Law and worked as a public defender before joining his family’s law practice.
Although Boncore is a prominent lawmaker and even flirted in 2018 with running for Suffolk County district attorney, his political career began with some controversy. He ran for his senate seat as a political newcomer in 2016 while being sued for colliding with a police cruiser in East Boston five years earlier after a night during which he drank alcohol.
Boncore, who said he had two drinks before the crash, was found not guilty of driving under the influence of alcohol by a Boston jury in 2012. But the officer whose cruiser was hit, Fred Lane, sued him for injuries, alleging negligence.
Both sides settled the case out of court in 2016, a few days before the trial was to start, according to court records and Lane’s attorney, Scott Goldberg, of Lexington.
With reports from Shirley Leung of the Globe staff.
Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.