Will Susan Windham-Bannister be the first and only head of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center?
Windham-Bannister is stepping down at the end of the month, and the center’s fate has been the buzz of biotech circles since Charlie Baker took the helm of Beacon Hill.
Baker has never liked the idea of the state picking winners, and when his budget came out, there was no funding mechanism for the center. The reason: His administration is studying consolidating the myriad state agencies that do some kind of economic development.
The life sciences center is among the most high profile of these agencies, set up in 2008 under Deval Patrick to implement his $1 billion biotech initiative. The center, under Windham-Bannister’s leadership, is widely credited with making Massachusetts the undisputed heavy-weight in life sciences in the United States. The 10 biggest drug companies in the world — including Roche and Pfizer — all now have a presence here, where many had little to no footprint seven years ago.
With Windham-Bannister leaving, nearly $600 million of the $1 billion spent, and three years left in the initiative, now what?
I tracked down Baker’s economic secretary Jay Ash, to get to the bottom of this. In conduct unbecoming a bureaucrat, he actually gave me some straight answers.
“We see that there is a large role for the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center in the Baker-Polito economic development future,” Ash said. “We will be tapping them to do a lot of what they’ve done.”
That means the administration will fund the center, although how much is still being worked out. It also means the administration will begin a search for a new president after Windham-Bannister departs.
“She won’t be the last one,” said Ash, who went on to give Windham-Bannister a lot of credit for the center’s success.
“She is an unsung hero,” he said.
Ash said the shift in the administration’s thinking came after hearing from leaders in the life sciences industry, who universally spoke of the need for a stand-alone agency. The center administers the billion-dollar initiative by giving out tax breaks, loans, and grants to biotech and medical technology companies that create jobs in the state.
The money is authorized annually. Half comes from the state’s capital fund. The administration approves money for tax incentives, while the Legislature must sign off on the center’s funds for grants and loans.
Genzyme chief executive David Meeker has been among the leaders pressing Baker to keep his attention on the industry.
“We need to make sure the focus continues,” said Meeker, who felt encouraged after speaking with the governor recently. “He absolutely gets the importance of life sciences.”
Genzyme was one of the early beneficiaries of the biotech initiative in 2008, when the center issued two grants totaling about $14 million to the Town of Framingham for water and sewer improvements. That enabled Genzyme to build a $300 million manufacturing plant in Framingham instead of in another state. Today more than 500 people work at the Framingham facility.
One of the priorities of the Baker administration is to create more biotech manufacturing, especially beyond the eastern part of the state.
That’s something that Windham-Bannister has positioned the center to do, or what she calls “Life Sciences 3.0.” If the first phase was to get companies to expand, and the second phase to persuade more to locate their US headquarters here, then the next push is to have more medicines made in Massachusetts. That’s a big step, because a lot of things have to fall into place, from the permitting to training people to work at high-tech factories.
The other looming issue is what happens after 2018, when the life sciences law expires and the funding disappears. Other states and countries have dug deep into their own coffers to lure biotech jobs from Massachusetts.
On this, Ash is pragmatic, given that Baker just put the brakes on spending $1 billion to expand the South Boston convention center.
“Not every initiative requires a $1 billion,” said Ash, who was the city manager of Chelsea before joining the Baker administration. “Sometimes it’s not about money. It’s about convening people. That’s what I did in Chelsea. I brought people together. A lot of it is about relationship building.”
Of course, some money will be needed. So how much is the administration likely to spend?
“We need millions of dollars, not billions,” Ash said.
Josh Boger, the founder of Vertex and a past board member of the life sciences center, agrees it’s not the size of the checks that matters. One of the smartest things he thought Windham-Bannister did was start a small-loan program for promising startups that were not yet ready to compete for venture capital funding. A $100,000 loan made the difference between a company’s staying in business or going under.
“It was the Commonwealth acting as a catalyst,” said Boger, whose latest venture is Alkeus Pharmaceuticals, which is developing a pill to stop the leading cause of blindness in teenagers.
In the life sciences, Baker sees a winner and is not afraid to pick one.