CAMBRIDGE — It’s just before noon on a chilly Wednesday, and Bob Coughlin is making the rounds at Catalyst, a Kendall Square restaurant popular with biotech entrepreneurs and scientists on the hunt for investment capital or research collaborators.
Coughlin, who helps companies find office and lab space, moves about the dining room, shaking hands with leasing agents, greeting startup founders, and chatting up business prospects.
”Lunch in Kendall Square,” said Coughlin, a managing director for life sciences at commercial real estate firm JLL. “On any given day, you can run into a top biotech CEO or a world-renowned scientist.”
The vaunted “bump factor” is thriving again in this biosciences hub after a pandemic that limited human contact and forced many to retreat to their home offices. The factor has adjusted to the new hybrid work world — bumping mostly happens Tuesday through Thursday. But the ease with which drug developers and financiers can run into each other remains a competitive advantage for the neighborhood dubbed “the most innovative square mile on planet Earth.”
”It’s our secret sauce,” said Kendalle Burlin O’Connell, chief executive of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council.
The potential to generate new ideas and partnerships through chance encounters is unmatched by less compact and more car-reliant rival clusters like California’s Bay Area or North Carolina’s Research Triangle, say Kendall Square boosters. Even in Boston’s Seaport district, fast emerging as a satellite biotech hub, the buildings are too isolated and the blocks too large to support a healthy bump factor.
People in Kendall, by contrast, collide not only at Catalyst but at neighborhood dining spots such as Shy Bird and Sulmona, coffee bars at Area Four and Ripple Cafe, and meetups sponsored by the Kendall Square Association or the Venture Cafe Cambridge.
Beth O’Neill Maloney, executive director of the Kendall Square Association, recently bumped into restaurateur Steve Kurland near the Galaxy fountain. By the end of their conversation, she’d finalized plans to hold her December board meeting at his nearby EVOO restaurant.
That’s how business is done in Kendall, said Maloney. “You grab a Bluebike and get from one end of the square to the other in four minutes,” she said. “If you’re at J&J Innovation Center and you want to talk to someone at Novartis or Novo Nordisk, it’s a few blocks’ walk.”
After three years of relative isolation, many are hungry for connection. Some gatherings are larger now than in pre-pandemic times. Attendance at Thursday night programs and networking events at Venture Care have drawn an average of 419 people this fall, up from 353 in 2019.
Biotech entrepreneur Alexis Borisy launched his new investment firm and incubator, Curie.bio, as a virtual operation last winter. But he’ll soon open an office in Kendall, he said, because of random meetings that yield “the exchange of ideas that are the raw material for biotech.”
“You’re back to the same out and about-ness” as before the pandemic, Borisy said. “You bump into people and catch up.”
Bump opportunities shrink on either side of the weekend, when many companies allow employees to work from home. “Kendall feels pretty quiet on Mondays and Fridays,” lamented Tim Rowe, founder of the Cambridge Innovation Center, which hosts the Venture Cafe.
But close encounters during the rest of the week were a selling point in the successful campaign to lure the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, a new federal research agency known as ARPA-H, to Cambridge, said O’Connell, the MassBio CEO.
On this Wednesday, O’Connell shared a table at Catalyst with Brian Johnson, president of the Massachusetts Medical Device Industry Council; Ben Downing, vice president of public affairs at The Engine, a venture firm spun out of MIT; and, Jake Becraft, chief executive of biotech startup Strand Therapeutics.
One item on their agenda: How to get the ARPA-H project managers, who now operate out of the Cambridge Innovation Center, plugged into the health care innovations bubbling up in area labs.
Coughlin’s window table looked out on a stand of Bluebikes and, across the street, at the McGovern Institute for Brain Research. Nearby buildings are chockablock with biotech startups, pharmaceutical giants, biology research labs, and investors who bankroll drug discovery.
As he waited for his lunch, Coughlin worked the dining room, making small talk with serial entrepreneur David Lucchino and his lunch partner Jay Ash, a former state official who leads the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, a group focusing on business investment.
Coughlin stopped by a table to compare notes on the real estate market outlook with Bill Kane, Colleen O’Connor, and Sal Zinno, three executives who lease life sciences properties for BioMed Realty.
“We eat lunch in Kendall because of the bump factor,” said Kane. “You can set up a table here and bump into people like [Broad Institute founder] Eric Lander and [biotech inventor] Bob Langer.”
But do unplanned meetings at places like Catalyst really fuel business?
Coughlin pointed to a nearby table where the young founder of a biotech startup, still in stealth mode, was showing his lunch mate a slide deck on his laptop. “See that guy over there?” Coughlin said. “I just got his business card. Later today, he’s going to get a market overview with information on how we can help him execute his growth strategy.”
While the bump factor may cement business connections, not everyone is convinced it plays a role in generating breakthrough science.
Chemical biologist Greg Verdine has started 10 biotechs, many in and around Kendall Square. But today, his office, housing two of his most recent startups, LifeMine Therapeutics and FogPharma, is across town overlooking Alewife Brook Reservation. He often forgoes Kendall lunches to watch blue herons and red-tailed hawks from his window.
“I’m always getting asked by visitors . . . if the bump factor is our magic,” Verdine said. “But in biotech startups, you can’t really talk to people about what you’re doing. People tend to keep their [scientific] programs and even their platforms close to their vests.
“Random collisions make for great atmospherics,” he said. “But it’s really the willful outreaches that lead to outcomes.”
Yet, even Verdine acknowledges that Kendall’s biotech concentration in such a small footprint is a social asset for the industry.
From his Catalyst lunch perch, Bob Coughlin isn’t likely to see exotic birds. But he is able to spot a world-renowned scientist.
As molecular and cell biologist Harvey Lodish, a Genzyme founder who discovered a treatment for a rare genetic disorder known as Gaucher disease, enters the dining room, Coughlin rushes over to greet him. Lodish tells him he just returned from seven weeks of science talks in Ghana, Uganda, and Malawi.
“The goal is to build a biotech ecosystem in sub-Saharan Africa,” Lodish said. “And the people who can help us do it are here at lunch.”
Robert Weisman can be reached at email@example.com.