Massachusetts is joining the multistate contest for a coveted prize: the headquarters of a new federal biomedical research agency.
Top academic, political, and business leaders from the region convened on Monday for the first time in an effort to land the home base for the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health — ARPA-H for short.
A recently approved federal spending bill sets aside $1 billion to launch ARPA-H to try novel approaches toward curing diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s, and President Biden is asking Congress for billions more over the next few years. The research center will intentionally not be located at its parent agency, the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Md. For that reason, leaders in various states are racing to make the best case for why ARPA-H should come to them. Texas has an early start. Other likely contenders include California and North Carolina. One congressman from Maryland recently told STAT that ARPA-H should be in his home state, not far from NIH.
Of course, the people who gathered at the UMass Club in downtown Boston on Monday believe Greater Boston — with all its world-class research hospitals and universities, and its density of drug companies — would be the best place for ARPA-H to set up shop. The guest list included everyone from Governor Charlie Baker, to the heads of the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership and the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, to leaders from MIT, Wellesley, Boston College, and about a half-dozen other universities. Ringleaders include US Representative Richard Neal and UMass president Marty Meehan.
US Senator Ed Markey, who was also in attendance, took the lead on a letter signed by all 11 members of the state’s congressional delegation sent on Monday to the Department of Health & Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra. The delegation urged Becerra to consider what it called the “unique assets” of Massachusetts, including the many research centers here and the success of the quasi-public Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, as well as the state’s “unmatched reputation as an idea factory.”
“They want the federal government to be taking big bets on risky science,” said Joe Boncore, a former state senator who is now chief executive of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council. “There’s no better place to do that than in Massachusetts . . . It’s really about solving big medical problems. This ecosystem here would work seamlessly to leverage our networks across the scientific community to make life-saving cures.”
He said the federal government would benefit more than Massachusetts would, if this state gets chosen.
“They would be joining an ecosystem where we already have 18 of the top biopharma companies in the world,” Boncore said. “Others are going to vie for this [but] I don’t think any other state holds a candle to what we can provide, in terms of a ready-built ecosystem.”
It’s still not clear how big the ARPA-H operation would be, in terms of size or employment. DARPA, the Pentagon’s research arm, is seen as a model. That agency — located in Arlington, Va., not far from the Pentagon — employs about 220 people and supports defense-related research done by companies and universities.
“You look at the economic impact that DARPA has had in terms of innovation, and collaboration with business and industry, it has been significant,” Meehan said. “From my vantage point, it’s not just whatever jobs come with having this agency, but it’s also the companies that spring up around it.”
Neal, who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, asked Meehan to reach out to the presidents of other research universities in Massachusetts and get them on board. Meehan said he’s spoken to the heads of a number of major local universities and has received unanimous support so far.
The nascent bid for ARPA-H is reminiscent of how the business and academic communities teamed up with government officials more than 15 years ago to prevent the Hanscom Air Force Base and the Army’s Natick Soldier Systems Center from being shuttered in a round of base closures. This time, the business groups, university presidents, and government leaders are playing offense, not defense.
Neal said he suspects bringing ARPA-H to Massachusetts would help a wide range of local life sciences companies.
“If you were to secure the [ARPA-H] address for Greater Boston, the rest of it would begin to flow,” Neal said. “It’s consistent with the research reputation that Kendall Square has [with] the highest concentration of research and development in the world.”