CAMBRIDGE – It was Charlie Baker’s first major appearance as governor before a business audience representing life sciences and technology, two pillars of the state’s economy.
But in conversational remarks that touched on everything from his college days at Harvard to his frustration with the performance of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority this winter, Baker danced around the issue foremost on the minds of many at the Kendall Square Association’s annual meeting Wednesday.
What’s going to happen to the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center?
Baker didn’t talk specifically about an idea under discussion among state officials to merge the center with two other economic development agencies, the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative and the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center. All three offer incentives for entrepreneurial companies to set up shop or expand in the state.
But he hinted broadly that his administration, rather than focusing on specific industries, will promote collaboration between sectors. In language that seemed to be borrowed from the world of venture capital, where he worked before launching his gubernatorial campaign, Baker promised “an aggressive attempt to think horizontally and not just vertically.”
State government “can be a real partner to the innovators and entrepreneurs,” Baker told more than 300 people gathered in the Tang Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “But I do believe that for us to be successful, we have to stop being as turf-oriented as we have been.”
Earlier this month, Jay Ash, the state’s new housing and economic development secretary, said Baker administration officials have been talking to business groups about potentially consolidating the agencies. He said no formal proposal has been made.
Baker’s proposed budget contained no funding for the life sciences center, an agency that was the centerpiece of the initiative by his predecessor, Deval Patrick, to fuel the growth of the biotech and medical technology industries. Baker’s staff said the life sciences center would continue to be funded for now through a different mechanism.
“The life sciences industry is important to the Baker administration,” said Tim Buckley, the governor’s spokesman. “They’re just looking at ways to better deliver services in economic development.”
Any move to dismantle the life sciences center, which offers loans, grants, and tax incentives to companies that create jobs in the state, would be unpopular among industry leaders.
“If you want to have targeted investments, you have to have the expertise,” said Alan Fein, president of the Kendall Square Association and chief strategy officer at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.
“If you have one unified agency, your message is going to be less clear,” Fein said in an interview after the annual meeting. “That’s going to be second best for everybody.”
Baker, in his talk to the group, said many of the traditional lines between industries are blurring. He cited, among other things, the growing role of “big data” in powering drug research and alliances struck between researchers and businesses in different sectors.
“The digital revolution in health care is just getting started,” he said.
Baker suggested that it might be difficult for state government to abandon what he described as its fragmented approach. “This will be a very hairy and complicated conversation for people in the public sector,” he cautioned, without elaborating on what the conversation would be about.
The governor noted the migration of global biopharmaceutical companies such as Pfizer Inc. and technology companies such as Google Inc. to Kendall Square, where they work with one another and with start-ups. He said the state can do more to capitalize on their presence and expand their “innovation model” beyond Cambridge.
“It’s a tremendous opportunity for us to try to replicate that in other places around the Commonwealth,” he said.
The governor also said his administration would work to ease the traffic congestion in and around Kendall Square. Baker drew applause when he said the state would help companies keep “foreign talent” educated at Massachusetts universities.
He praised the “multidisciplinary stew that makes it possible to bring people together to think differently about solving problems.” He cited the work of incubators such as the Cambridge Innovation Center and Lab Central in nurturing start-ups and partnerships.
Marveling at how much Kendall Square has changed since his college years, he said, “The Kendall Square of the 1970s was a pretty quiet place. I thought of it as being one more stop on the Red Line from Central Square, which was also a quiet place.”
The governor also cited the central role of MIT and Harvard in fueling discoveries and drawing businesses to the state over the past several decades.
Baker recalled that businessman Jack Connors once told him that “the key to the Massachusetts economy is you start with two world-class research universities and you wait 200 years.”