SAN DIEGO — Richard Lin booked a meeting with Massachusetts officials this week at the BIO International Convention here, bringing a list of questions about expanding his small company, a biotechnology lab operator, into the Boston area.
He hoped for a warm welcome. He wanted to be wooed. But he never expected to be welcomed and wooed by the governor of Massachusetts, who sat next to him during the 20-minute discussion, pitching the state and answering his questions.
“Frankly, it was a big surprise he was here,” said Lin, chief executive of Explora Biolabs of San Diego. “That means a lot. It helps me to see people in charge’s commitment to our industry.”
Governor Deval Patrick made his last sales call this week on the BIO convention, the biotechnology industry’s biggest gathering, and an event that has become entwined with his signature economic development initiative — and legacy. Seven years ago at BIO he unveiled his $1 billion program to grow the state’s life sciences industry, and he has returned almost every year to sell the Commonwealth to companies large and small.
As Patrick prepares to leave office at the end of the year, Massachusetts can boast what is widely considered thepremier life sciences cluster in the world, employing tens of thousands of people and attracting billions of dollars of investment from global pharmaceutical companies, venture capitalists, and the federal government.
Patricks’ criticssay his policies have had little to do with this success. With the state’s world-class universities and medical institutions, rich veins of scientific talent, and deep pools of capital, companies would locate and expand here anyway, they say.
For his part, Patrick steers clear of the word, “legacy.” He says he will leave office knowing his administration made an impact on the life sciences industry — thanks partly to his sales job.
“I could fairly be issued my own set of pom poms,” he quipped.
Patrick moved through the bustling San Diego Convention Center this week, talking up Massachusetts at every opportunity — speaking on a panel, circulating at social events, and meeting with executives. A handful of governors attend BIO each year — the governors of California, Virginia, and South Dakota also came this year — but not all get involved at the level Patrick does, engaging in the granular details, and for so many consecutive years.
Patrick only missed one BIO convention as governor, in 2010, when a catastrophic water main break cut off clean drinking water to about 2 million people in Greater Boston.
On Wednesday, Patrick spent two hours at a couple of small tables, alongside other Massachusetts officials, meeting with executives from half a dozen research and development companies considering opening offices in Massachusetts. As he listened to them describe their business models, markets, and concerns, every request was on the table.
Fly to Shanghai? Sure. Host company executives visiting Massachusetts? No problem. Come to a ribbon cutting? Absolutely.
These conversations are part of a process that can take years. One example is Patrick’s discussions with the drug developer Xenetic Biosciences during an official trip to Britain in 2011. His early interest and involvement helped spur further talks between company and state officials that ultimately led Xenetic to move its global headquarters from London to Lexington, bringing seven jobs and plans to expand.
“I can have an impact either as a magnet or as a closer,” Patrick said in an interview. “The ones that are the most fun are the closers.”
Like any good salesman, Patrick has a well-honed pitch. He ticks through the state’s assets: the strong schools, educated workforce, many universities and research institutions, and growing tech and biotech industries that helped the state out of recession.
Patrick has taken that message not only across the United States, but around the globe. He has led trade missions to more than a dozen countries, returning just three weeks ago from Israel and the United Arab Emirates. Earlier trips took him to China, Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Britain, Ireland, Canada, Mexico, Panama, Colombia, Chile, and Brazil.
“The reason I travel is we’ve got to look out — that’s where our markets are,” Patrick said. “Everybody talks about the global economy, but if you don’t go out, engage, you’re not going to win. You’ve got to play to win.”
The governor’s overseas trips have provided fodder for his critics. Massachusetts Republicans say he should spend more time in the state and less taxpayer money on foreign trips. But Kristen Rupert, executive director of Associated Industries of Massachusetts International Business Council, an arm of the state’s biggest employer group, said his approach has helped Massachusetts businesses.
“A governor has the ability to open doors overseas that a company, acting on its own, often cannot open,” Rupert said. “We saw that happen in Mexico and Israel, where [Massachusetts] organizations that had been attempting to make headway in those countries suddenly secured meetings after Governor Patrick met with government officials.”
Though Patrick says his travel schedule is demanding, he seems to enjoy himself. He chatted affably with other officials and executives Wednesday, snacking on warm chocolate chip cookies during a break. He obliged when passersby asked to snap photos with him.
But when discussions got serious, so did he.
Richard Soll of Wuxi AppTec, a contract drug research and development firm in Shanghai, told Patrick his boss is very interested in opening a lab in the Boston area. Soll, senior vice president of Wuxi's international discovery services unit, said there’s great potential for the company to grow in Massachusetts, where it already has customers, such as Vertex Pharmaceuticals.
“I think this partnership is important for the whole Massachusetts life sciences sector,” Soll said.
“Just so you know,” Patrick told him, “we’re working on direct flights to Shanghai.”
Soll mentioned that Wuxi's chief executive may visit Boston this summer.
“I’m around,” Patrick replied.