SAN FRANCISCO — When senior Massachusetts officials sat out last year’s Biotechnology Innovation Organization convention, life sciences executives wondered whether the new Baker administration would continue the strong support they had enjoyed from former governor Deval Patrick.
But the Baker team is making its presence felt at this year BIO gathering here, sending a crew of representatives, including Housing and Economic Developmental Secretary Jay Ash, and on Tuesday rolling out a new grant program designed to attract more biotech and medical technology companies to the Bay State.
The new program, called the Massachusetts Transition and Growth program, is aimed at companies too small to qualify for tax breaks offered to larger players. Initially funded with $4 million, it is the first initiative by Governor Charlie Baker’s administration to expand the reach of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, the agency charged with building up the state’s biomedical cluster.
When it launches this fall, the program will offer grants of between $10,000 and $25,000 per worker to small life sciences companies with at least five employees that commit to hiring 10 to 49 people in Massachusetts. The grants will be awarded retroactively in the year after the hires have been made, said Travis McCready, president of the life sciences center, who was attending his first BIO convention.
Currently the state provides tax credits — averaging about $18,000 per employee — to companies creating more than 50 jobs in Massachusetts. Many of the largest drug makers in the United States and Europe have taken advantage of the program to set up operations in the Boston area, one of the world’s top biopharma hubs.
The new program is aimed as a “first contact” with smaller companies that have the potential to grow in Massachusetts, especially in other parts of the state, McCready said.
“One of the criticisms of the tax credit program is that these are companies that are here or would have come here anyway,” McCready said in an interview. “Based on past experience, we know these small companies that aren’t here can grow their presence in Massachusetts and become mid-sized and large companies. This program will really target these smaller, dynamic life sciences companies and give them an incentive to come to Boston, Worcester, or Lowell.”
A new report released by BIO on Tuesday showed that Massachusetts has retained — and expanded — its status as one of the nation’s leading life sciences centers. The state had 81,495 biotech employees in 2014, up 4.7 percent from 2012, according to the report. It said Massachusetts was home to 2,227 biotech businesses in 2014, an increase of 6.5 percent from two years earlier.
While the governor himself didn’t make the trip to BIO — as Patrick frequently did during his tenure — Ash and McCready led a delegation of more than a dozen state officials along with representatives from Boston, Cambridge, Somerville, Marlborough, and Worcester, all of whom are meeting with companies they consider prospects at the Massachusetts pavilion and outside the convention.
Kevin O’Sullivan, president of the Worcester Biomedical Initiative, was busy chatting up the chief executive from a foreign contract manufacturer at a meeting table in the pavilion. “Massachusetts is a mecca, and a lot of companies are interested in coming here,” he said. “A lot of the small and medium-sized companies are getting pushed out of Cambridge because of cost. We hope they come to Worcester.”
McCready, recovering from a running injury, made the rounds at the pavilion wearing a jacket and tie — and comfortable running shoes that he called a “fashion faux pas” but essential to covering territory in the massive exhibition hall.
Speaking of the Massachusetts cluster of biotechs, big drug companies, and academic researchers, he said, “History has shown that when you try this ecology, you will not leave.”
While the state’s representatives were surrounded by folks from other states like New York and New Jersey trying to build up their own life sciences sectors — and steal businesses from Massachusetts — the Bay Staters were so confident that Bob Coughlin, president of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, couldn’t resist a gentle dig at California, the BIO host state and a rival life sciences center.
“It’s always a great opportunity when you get to visit the second-best place in the world for innovation,” Coughlin said.