AMHERST — Can the University of Massachusetts grow a viable life sciences cluster from scratch almost 100 miles west of the Boston and Cambridge biotech hub?
A lot of taxpayer money, and some reputations, are riding on the answer.
UMass Amherst last month opened its Institute for Applied Life Sciences in a new 275,000-square-foot building perched on a hill. Funded by a $95 million grant from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center and $55 million in university investments, the institute is filled with research labs and student training programs focused on drug delivery technology, therapeutic targeting, and personalized health monitoring.
In a wearable-technologies lab on a recent afternoon, computer science professor Deepak Ganesan showed off a pair of spectacles developed by his team. They’re equipped with sensors to detect when a driver is about to doze off. “Hopefully, it’s something we can commercialize,” he said.
There are also business incubator spaces, called “collaboratories,” where startups spun out of UMass labs or drawn from outside the region can set up shop and strike partnerships.
While the institute is a notable campus addition — the sleek architecture makes it look like it would be at home in Cambridge’s Kendall Square — UMass Amherst chancellor Kumble R. Subbaswamy sees it as springboard for an even broader mission: creating what he calls a “Cambridge West mini-hub” that would become a biotech engine in its own right.
“The Commonwealth is ill-served by the fact that you have all this [life sciences] concentration in such a small area around Boston and the rest of the state is left out of the equation,” said Subbaswamy.
But other regions, states, and countries harbor similar ambitions. Exhibition floors at the Biotechnology Innovation Organization’s annual conventions are chockablock with pavilions trumpeting scores of would-be hubs from BioOhio to a fledgling cluster in Belgium’s Wallonia region. Only a handful besides Boston-Cambridge — including the San Francisco Bay Area, San Diego, and North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park — have gathered critical mass. Others, such as Worcester, have generated modest activity.
“There’s more losers than winners, to be sure,” said Greg LeRoy, executive director of Good Jobs First, a Washington think tank that promotes smart economic growth. “Lots of communities are chasing biotech, and it’s a zero-sum game in many cases because they waste a lot of money trying to steal companies from one another. It takes a very long time to build a successful cluster, a lot of companies fail, and it’s not easy to commercialize biomedical research.”
But UMass and its state government backers believe it’s a gamble worth taking.
The flagship state university had once envisioned the institute’s site as the future home of a pharmacy school. That changed with the 2008 passage of the Massachusetts life sciences initiative, legislation that provided for $1 billion in grants, loans, and tax breaks to spur growth of the industry across the state. By earmarking $95 million for UMass Amherst, the law refocused the university’s administration on expanding its life sciences research and education.
The school’s initial proposal to the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center — the agency created to implement the initiative — was rejected as too vague. The university then launched an 18-month process of meeting with academic, economic development, and industry officials in Western Massachusetts as well as the Boston area to determine what kinds of UMass Amherst research to target.
By building up such areas as drug delivery and personalized health, the school determined it could spin off the kind of small entrepreneurial businesses that would attract established companies eager to collaborate. “Large companies want to go where small companies are,” said Michael F. Malone, the university’s vice chancellor for research and engagement.
Much of the funding has gone toward high-end research equipment, including advanced microscopes and a state-of-the-art magnetic resonance imaging chamber, as well as the hiring of professors with specialized research backgrounds.
“The key ingredient is having a skilled base of researchers and students,” said institute director Peter H. Reinhart.
Mark Namchuck, an industry leader, hosted a meeting for the UMass Amherst life sciences initiative when he worked for Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc. in Boston and had attended similar meetings. He said Boston and Cambridge drug makers were interested not only in eventually hiring UMass graduates but in tapping the expertise of its researchers. Among the issues discussed was how to share intellectual property that grows out of scientific collaborations.
“They’re really being open-minded to a variety of different ways to work with industry, with both sides benefitting from business arrangements that are pretty creative,” said Namchuck, now director of research at biopharma company Alkermes Inc. in Waltham.
UMass polymer science professor Kenneth Carter, who helped develop a nanocellulose coating called Fogkicker that can be applied to surfaces on endoscopes and laparoscopes to prevent fogging, co-founded an Amherst company, Treaty LLC, to commercialize the technology. The startup is looking at space in a collaboratory at the applied life sciences center.
“This product will happen, and we’ll keep the company in Western Massachusetts,” he said.
Economic development officials in the region are also working with UMass to develop ties between the nascent life sciences hub and Baystate Medical Center, the largest hospital in Western Massachusetts, as well as precision manufacturers in the Connecticut River valley.
“There’s a lot of companies that do aerospace and defense work, and they can also manufacture and prototype medical devices at a much lower cost” than firms in Eastern Massachusetts, said Rick Sullivan, president of the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts. “This effort is emanating from Amherst but there will be activity throughout the region.”
In the short run, many involved with the campaign acknowledge that its main impact might be preparing more UMass students to work in the Boston-area life sciences hub after they graduate.
“I don’t think anybody’s expecting Amherst to turn into Kendall Square next year,” said Robert Gottlieb, an industry veteran who served as a consultant on the UMass project. “But there’s some great science out there and there’s a lot of opportunity.”