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Massachusetts makes its case to host coveted federal health research agency

The ARPA-H office could dole out billions in grants to research solutions to some of the hardest health challenges.

Longwood Medical Area, with its massive cluster of hospitals and medical schools, is one of several major assets in Greater Boston as Massachusetts bids to host a new federal agency that could direct billions in health research grants to tackle major medical challenges such as curing cancer.David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

As the Celtics battle the Philadelphia 76ers through the second round of the NBA playoffs, another Massachusetts team is competing in a different kind of tournament.

For this one, the prize is a coveted hub for a new federal health research agency, dubbed ARPA-H. A firm representing Governor Maura Healey’s administration and the state’s life sciences cluster filed its pitch with ARPA-H last month. State officials expect to learn next week if they make it to the next round, which will involve site visits to the semifinalists.

State officials aren’t sharing the details of their bid, saying this is competitive info that could hurt their chances to win. But they’ve assuredly highlighted the strengths of the Massachusetts life sciences sector — all the biotechs, research hospitals, universities, and venture capitalists, primarily in and around Boston and Cambridge. Leaders in the region’s health care and biotech industries are helping with the pitch. There really is no other place in the country, their argument goes, that’s as strong as Massachusetts when it comes to this kind of research.

The race began informally a year ago after Congress set aside funds to launch the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health — or ARPA-H, as it’s known. It’s modeled after DARPA, the renowned research arm of the Defense Department. And it’s aimed at solving tough health problems such as curing cancer or Alzheimer’s — particularly with high-risk, high-reward approaches. Last May, then-governor Charlie Baker, UMass president Marty Meehan, Representative Richard Neal and other luminaries gathered at the UMass Club to map out a strategy to bring ARPA-H here.


The game plan shifted after Congress directed ARPA-H, which has a budget of $2.5 billion through fiscal 2025, to be split up geographically. Now there will be three hubs instead of one. The administrative hub will be located in the D.C. area. There will also be a hub that focuses on improving the customer experience of health care and an “investor catalyst” hub that helps researchers bring bold ideas to market.


The Massachusetts team wants to win the investor catalyst hub — more specifically, a contract with a consortium management firm, representing the local life sciences industry and institutional players, to operate the hub. It would be relatively small — several dozen people and maybe some labs. Program managers would help distribute and shepherd funds to various private-sector partners.

Ed Coppinger, head of government affairs at the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, says opening the investor catalyst hub here would make it more likely that a significant chunk of ARPA-H’s billions comes to local researchers, while also boosting the prestige of the state’s already-famous life sciences industry. ARPA-H is asking bidders to take a “hub and spoke” approach — the spokes being the research partners. With the Massachusetts bid, the hub would be in Greater Boston but these “spokes” could involve research in labs across the country.

To US Representative Jake Auchincloss, landing the ARPA-H hub will make the local life sciences ecosystem even stronger, by bringing more super-smart people into the region to bounce ideas off one another. In particular, Auchincloss hopes ARPA-H researchers can develop cutting edge tools and protocols that can expedite the drug discovery process, getting more life-changing cures to more patients while saving money and time for a wide range of companies.


So who is Massachusetts up against? In Texas, the cities of Austin, Dallas, and San Antonio teamed up for a joint bid, proposing a customer experience hub in Dallas. Rivals could also emerge from states such as North Carolina and California.

Those who make it past the site visit round will have until early July to submit full proposals. Unlike with the NBA championship series, we won’t learn until September whether the Massachusetts team in the ARPA-H playoffs will go all the way.

Jon Chesto can be reached at Follow him @jonchesto.