Eight years ago, Jeff Leiden had an ambitious vision for Vertex Pharmaceuticals, to broaden the ailments the company treats and the technology it uses to treat them. The then-CEO began acquiring the businesses, hiring the talent, and signing the contracts the drug maker would need to fulfill that vision.
And now that Vertex is getting closer to commercializing its cutting-edge cell and gene therapies, it will have an ambitious manufacturing and research campus to match Leiden’s ambitious vision.
Employees will gather on Tuesday to celebrate the opening of a four-story, 267,000-square-foot facility at 6 Tide St. in the Ray Flynn industrial park, about a mile from the corporate headquarters on Fan Pier. But that’s just the start: Vertex is also announcing plans to occupy almost all of a seven-floor, 344,000-square-foot building to be built across the street, at 22 Drydock Ave. The entire complex will be named the Jeffrey Leiden Center for Cell and Genetic Therapies, with two buildings known internally simply as “Leiden 1″ and “Leiden 2.” The campus is being developed by Related Beal and Kavanagh Advisory Group.
Nearly 400 people work in the first building. Another 500 will work in the second, once it is fully occupied. Leiden said about 700 of these jobs would be new to Boston. Vertex currently employs about 2,600 people at Fan Pier, as well as 90 at an existing plant in the industrial park, and 75 in Cambridge.
Leiden said Vertex was quickly running out of room in its Fan Pier lab space.
“We could have gone elsewhere [but] we decided to build this campus in the Seaport,” said Leiden, who said Vertex did not seek tax incentives for either structure. “It’s super-exciting. It diversifies Vertex from a disease standpoint and a technology standpoint.”
Vertex started moving into the first building in January. Leiden, now the company’s executive chairman, hopes the second building will open in 2025. He might not still be on the Vertex payroll at that time: When Reshma Kewalramani was promoted to succeed him as CEO in 2020, Leiden was supposed to stay on as executive chairman through 2023; he has now agreed to stay until spring 2024 to help Kewalramani with the new Boston campus, as well as investor relations and government affairs.
“For many years now, we’ve been talking about the fact that once we have the various programs that were in development come to this exact stage, past proof-of-concept, we were going to be at this new inflection point,” Kewalramani said. “That time is right now.”
Vertex put together a strategy in 2014 and 2015 to diversify, Leiden said, lining up about a dozen acquisitions and other deals to assemble what he calls the company’s “toolbox.” Vertex had previously made a big bet on treating hepatitis C, but was outflanked by a rival and eventually discontinued that work to focus on cystic fibrosis instead. The company now has four CF treatments that together generated substantially all of its $7.6 billion in revenue last year.
Those treatments are made from organic “small molecules” — the more traditional biotech drug, delivered by pill. At the Leiden Center, Vertex employees will focus on cell and genetic therapies that are currently in the experimental stage. Cell therapies consist of inserting cells in a patient to replicate a function that healthy cells would normally do; one example is Vertex’s treatment for Type 1 diabetes that involves inserting islet cells into a patient’s liver to create insulin. Gene therapies, meanwhile, involve altering patients’ natural cells to address the underlying causes of ailments such as sickle cell disease and Duchenne muscular dystrophy, in Vertex’s case.
Vertex officials also announced they’ll devote $50 million over five years to health equity, including by improving the diversity of type 1 diabetes clinical trials, boosting access for sickle-cell disease care at Mass. General Hospital, and expanding the company’s partnership with workforce training nonprofit Year Up to prepare young adults for life sciences careers. Those funds come from a $500 million philanthropic fund Vertex established in 2017.
The expansion also highlights the life sciences hub that is emerging in the Seaport industrial park, where Related is one of several major developers to bet big on lab space. Kavanagh Advisory Group initially launched plans to build the research center on Tide Street in 2013, and Related subsequently decided to team up with them. The two are also co-developers on the 22 Drydock site, Related executive vice president Stephen Faber said.
Faber said his firm realized several years ago that the waterfront area could be a life sciences hotspot, especially with industry epicenter Kendall Square running out of room. Last month, Related won the rights to develop the city-owned site at 22 Drydock in part by promising to bring in people of color as investors in the $400 million project, through a real estate fund overseen by prominent Black developer Richard Taylor, as well as by using Black-owned contractors such as Janey Construction and architectural firm DREAM Collaborative. (Vertex will also be an investor in Leiden 2.)
Faber said he’s excited his firm can help Vertex expand. “We look forward to continuing that relationship and growing their incredible record of providing important cures for serious medical issues,” Faber said.
Vertex was the first big-name drug company in the Seaport when it moved its headquarters from Cambridge to Fan Pier more than eight years ago. Now, the parking lots and warehouses that once lined the waterfront area have been replaced by shiny new office buildings, hotel towers, high-end housing, and, with increasing frequency, life science labs.
“When I look and see what is going on in the Seaport area,” Kewalramani said, “it parallels the growth of Vertex itself.”