German pharmaceutical giant Bayer AG expanded its small but growing presence in the Boston region this week by opening a Research and Innovation Center in Cambridge’s Kendall Square. The site houses labs focused on early-stage cancer research as well as offices for business development to expand Bayer’s connections with local academic centers and biotech companies.
Bayer is “doubling down on partnerships” with academic institutions and biotech companies — large and small alike, said Sebastian Guth, Bayer’s head of pharmaceuticals for the Americas region. “Boston is a cornerstone” for that effort, Guth said. “And building our presence in Boston just allows us to attract even more scientific talent into our organization.”
The center, which was announced three years ago, occupies the top two floors of a new 12-story glass building connected to the back of the brick clock tower building at 238 Main St. Bayer invested $140 million in the 62,100-square-foot facility overlooking the Charles River and downtown Boston, which is steps away from a Kendall/MIT MBTA Red Line stop.
About 100 employees are already working in the building, and Bayer plans to add 50 more in the coming months. It’s a tiny portion of Bayer’s nearly 100,000 workers globally, but an important step in the nearly 159-year-old company’s goals to grow its commercial and research footprints in the US, Guth said. Bayer also has research centers in the life sciences hubs of San Diego, San Francisco, and North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park.
Bayer’s new precision molecular oncology research center will be based at the Cambridge site. Its scientists will investigate new strategies for killing cancer in a more targeted fashion. That may include drugs aimed at specific genetic mutations that drive the disease, regardless of where a tumor is, and using biomarkers from patients to predict who will best respond to a drug. “It’s that notion of trying to go from the shotgun approach to the laser,” said Christine Roth, Bayer’s global head of oncology.
This isn’t the company’s first foray into precision oncology. Bayer and partner Loxo Oncology — since acquired by Eli Lilly and Company — won the second cancer drug approval from the FDA based on genetic biomarkers, rather than tumor type, a so-called tumor-agnostic approach. Nearly half of Bayer’s research and development budget goes to cancer, Guth said, and it aims to become a top 10 oncology firm by 2030.
Bayer also has two smaller research sites in Boston. Its Pulmonary Drug Discovery lab at Brigham and Women’s Hospital is a collaboration with that hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital to develop new drugs for lung diseases. And Bayer’s Precision Cardiology Lab at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard is focused on developing new tools to study and treat heart disease.
Bayer’s expansion into the heart of Kendall Square comes at a time when soaring lab prices in the area are forcing many biotech companies into the suburbs. Bayer chose to settle down on one of the city’s most expensive patches of land because it wants to “fish where the fish are,” Roth said.
The company’s venture capital arm, Leaps by Bayer, has invested in several Boston startups, most recently Affini-T Therapeutics, which launched with $175 million in March to develop T cell therapies for famously tough-to-treat tumors. Bayer said that Leaps has invested $1.2 billion in health care companies since 2020, and plans to spend $1.4 billion more on health and agriculture firms by the end of 2024.
Acquisitions and partnerships will remain important for Bayer in the coming years, Guth said. “We have been incredibly active, and we will remain very active,” he said. “Our colleagues in business development and licensing have a significant presence here at Kendall Square. And much of their work is focused on the many small emerging biotech companies.”
Bayer has previously invested in several joint ventures in Massachusetts, although not all of them have been successful. Control of Casebia Therapeutics, a gene editing venture with Crispr Therapeutics, was handed back to Crispr three years after its inception. And Joyn Bio, a crop science venture launched with Ginkgo Bioworks in 2018, wasfolded back into Ginkgo this April.
The outcome was different for BlueRock Therapeutics, a cell therapy startup that Bayer founded with Versant Ventures in 2016 and bought in 2019. It is one of a few early-stage biotech firms that Bayer has acquired over the past few years, along with gene therapy startup Asklepios BioPharmaceutical and cancer and immunology company Vividion Therapeutics.
All three firms have retained their names and operate separately from Bayer. “We want to nurture that entrepreneurial spirit,” Guth said.
BlueRock’s headquarters are based in the same building as Bayer’s new Cambridge center. It’s also shared with gene editing company Beam Therapeutics and biotech startup incubator LabCentral. CVS Pharmacy plans to open a store on the ground floorlater this year.