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Baker signals that he’ll make supporting life sciences a priority

Governor Charlie Baker at the State House in January.
Governor Charlie Baker at the State House in January.(AP Photo/Steven Senne)

CAMBRIDGE — Not so long ago, Governor Charlie Baker seemed skeptical about continuing the 10-year life sciences initiative launched by his predecessor, Deval Patrick. On Thursday, Baker left no doubt that he’s all-in.

Speaking before more than 400 executives gathered at the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council’s annual meeting, the governor outlined an ambitious — if vague — vision for extending the initiative after its initial term expires next year, saying he hopes to focus not only on adding companies and jobs, but also on training, research partnerships, and other areas.

Baker said details of what’s being called “Life Sciences Initiative 2.0” — including how much the state will spend, and for how long — remain to be worked out. But his remarks were the first clear signal that he plans to make fueling life sciences a priority.

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The approach, which grew out of a series of discussions between Baker administration officials and business leaders, is “a little bit past spitballing but not yet the final product,” the governor said. He said more details will be disclosed later this year.

The $1 billion initiative expires at the end of 2018.

“This is about jobs and it’s about success, but it’s also about discovery and inquiry and game-changing opportunities to improve the lives of so many people not only in Massachusetts but around the world,” Baker said.

After taking office, Baker initially considered merging the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center — created by Patrick to carry out the initiative — into a broader economic development agency. But under pressure from the industry, he ultimately opted to keep the center open. Until Thursday, however, he hadn’t spoken explicitly of a new life sciences initiative.

Baker received a standing ovation from an audience at the Royal Sonesta Hotel that included many executives who once questioned his commitment to backing the life sciences industry with state funds. Under Patrick, the state spent about $80 million a year in capital improvement grants, loans, and tax incentives to woo companies to locate or expand in Massachusetts, a global hub for the life sciences.

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Since Baker took office in 2015, the state has continued to commit funds to attract companies such as Shire PLC, Siemens AG, and IBM Watson Health. Earlier Thursday, the governor visited the headquarters of the medical device maker Abiomed Inc., which has doubled its research and manufacturing space in recent years.

“He totally gets it,” said David Meeker, president of the drug maker Sanofi Genzyme in Cambridge. “You have to support what you have. It takes attention and feeding. He has a lot of priorities, but this industry is so important to Massachusetts. And what happens here is so important to the world.”

Baker said the new plan will seek to create more internships and apprenticeship programs to get students ready to work in life sciences. He said it will provide the financial “stitching that closes the deal” in forging research alliances between companies and scientists. And he said it will work to speed collaboration between data-crunchers and drug and device makers to hasten development of new treatments.

“As we get better and better at processing information, and as the [medical] tool-building gets better and better, there are going to be opportunities to put them together,” he said.

Bob Coughlin, president of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, said his members are hoping the next-generation life sciences initiative will also focus on expanding the state’s biomanufacturing cluster, which could boost employment outside of Boston and Cambridge.

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“We’ve had a lot of success, but now it’s time for the next version,” Coughlin said. “The way it was designed 10 years ago isn’t the way it needs to be done now.”

Baker, who has taken a cautious approach to using government money to promote industry, said he now believes “the math on making a return on this is supportable.”

The governor also talked about his plans to improve public transportation and expand affordable housing, issues important to many biotech and med-tech companies.

After the winter of 2015, he said, the message he heard from many in the industry was, “Yeah, the life sciences are important — but fix the T.”


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