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Charlie Baker, top state officials skip biotech meeting

But state says its support still strong

Industry players gathered at the Biotechnology Industry Organization convention in Philadelphia.Scott Lewis for The Boston Globe/Globe Freelance

PHILADELPHIA — As governor, Deval Patrick used the biotechnology industry’s premier convention as a launching pad for one of his highest-profile business-development initiatives. But neither Governor Charlie Baker nor any of his top economic officials are making the trip to this year’s Biotechnology Industry Organization convention, at which a large Massachusetts pavilion opened Tuesday.

It fell to Pamela Norton, the usually low-profile vice president of industry relations and programs at the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, to gamely represent the state at a news conference unveiling a new Internet portal linking biotech companies around the world with academic researchers at teaching hospitals from Boston to Worcester. Her former boss, center president Susan Windham-Bannister, stepped down this spring, and the Baker administration has yet to announce a successor at the quasi-public agency.


“Normally, I’m behind the scenes,” Norton said afterward.

While governors from Delaware and South Dakota appeared Tuesday at the BIO convention to drum up business in the hopes of building their own biotech clusters, the ranking public officials from Massachusetts were state Senator Michael Rodrigues, Democrat of Westport, state Representative Jeffrey N. Roy, Democrat of Franklin, and Boston economic development chief John Barros.

The contrast to years past was striking. In 2008, Patrick launched a major initiative to support the life sciences industry in Massachusetts and promptly led a big state delegation to the biotechnology convention, where he was named BIO Governor of the Year. In later years, Patrick was a reliable presence on the convention exhibition floor, pressing the flesh of out-of-state drug manufacturers as the Bay State’s salesman in chief.

Paul McMorrow, spokesman for the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, insisted support for the biotech industry has not diminished under the Baker administration.

Patrick had committed more than $600 million to tax breaks, working capital grants, and other incentives to attract companies to locate or expand in Massachusetts.


“We will be represented [at BIO] by the life sciences center,” McMorrow said.

“Anything that needs a push will absolutely get a push from the administration. It’s actually just a scheduling thing. It’s a transition thing, not a value judgment on how we see the industry. The governor and the economic development secretary [Jay Ash] have gone to pains to say how much we value the industry, how important it is as a driver of broad-based economic development.”

Members of the Mass. Life Sciences Center spoke with attendees at the BIO Conference in Philadelphia.Scott Lewis for the Boston Globe

The state’s 1,500-square-foot pavilion was sandwiched into a corridor on the exhibition floor near the booths for BIOKorea and a Danish company, CMC Biologics. Inside, there were Red Sox hats, the buzz of dealmakers huddling at small tables, and snippets of talk about everything from global partnerships to the advantages of doing business in Somerville.

“All my friends are here, so I just stopped by to say hello,” said Pravin Chaturvedi, chief executive of IndUS Pharmaceuticals Inc., a Woburn drug developer that licenses biomedical technology from India and elsewhere.

The steady traffic largely reflected the draw of Massachusetts as a global biotechnology hub.

“When we have our clam chowder tomorrow, the line will be down the corridor,” said Bob Coughlin, president of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council trade group, who said he had scheduled dozens of meetings at BIO with out-of-state companies.

Officials from MassBio and the life sciences center were joined at the pavilion by representatives of Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, and Marlborough.


“We have a lot of opportunity with [the hospital group] Partners HealthCare moving to Assembly Square,” said Amanda Maher, a Somerville economic development specialist. “We’re literally a stone’s throw from Kendall Square, so we have an opportunity to provide space for the spillover from Kendall Square — and for half of what the space costs there. Not $90 a square foot, but $45 a square foot.”

There was no shortage of visitors to the Massachusetts pavilion from across the United States and overseas. Dieter Lingelbach, chief operating officer of Sirion Biotech, a German supplier of drug-delivery technology to gene therapy companies, said his firm planned to open a Bay State research and business office to serve US biotechs. He hoped to have more than 20 people there in two years.

Bethany Edwards, cofounder of Lia Diagnostics, a Philadelphia startup developing a pregnancy test, said she, too, was considering Massachusetts. “There’s a lot going on there,” she said. “You get access to resources and people, all the schools.”

The chief executive of Selvita, a cancer drug company in Krakow, Poland, that recently opened a Cambridge office, said he planned to stop by the Massachusetts pavilion during the BIO convention.

“We are the first Polish biotech company to open an office in Boston,” Pawel Przewiezlikowski said proudly. “I was there five or six times last year and two times so far this year. It’s my favorite American city. It’s a good model for Krakow.”

Some biotech leaders from Massachusetts were hanging out at the pavilion in between meetings they had scheduled with potential partners or clients from elsewhere.


“We’re trying to find companies to occupy our space,” said PC Zhu, president of Mass Innovation Labs, which is subleasing 124,000 square feet of research space in Kendall Square.

“The overseas companies can move their scientists right into our space. Most of the Chinese companies have an interest. They want to partner with American innovation-based companies.”

Somerville-based life sciences consultant Leora Schiff said that having the word Massachusetts on her BIO badge opens doors for her at networking events here.

“It helps start a conversation,” she said. “Just being part of the Massachusetts community confers a lot of respect.”

Robert Weisman can be reached at robert.weisman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRobW.