Business

Vertex pledges $500 million for charitable efforts over 10 years

Vertex Pharmaceuticals chief executive Jeffrey Leiden said the company is evolving on its philanthropic side.
Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff/File 2015
Vertex Pharmaceuticals chief executive Jeffrey Leiden said the company is evolving on its philanthropic side.

Vertex Pharmaceuticals is taking a big step toward bolstering its standing in Boston’s civic circles and addressing a local talent shortage by committing to spend $500 million on charitable efforts, including workforce training, over the next 10 years.

The pledge, to be announced Tuesday, places the Boston-based drug maker among the largest corporate donors in the city and reflects Vertex’s standing as a major employer that makes life-altering medicines for people with cystic fibrosis.

“The company has really evolved to be a global biotech company with a very clear future,” said Vertex chief executive Jeffrey Leiden. “For us, it’s a special moment. It recognizes our evolution as a company, not only on the medicine side, but on the giving side.”

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Much of the money will go toward boosting education in science and math fields as well as the arts, starting as early as middle school. The company also wants to set aside money for grants to help young scientists and researchers.

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Another portion will be spent helping cystic fibrosis patients get access to Vertex drugs that help them breathe easier and live a more normal life — but that come at a very high price. One of its medicines, for example, Orkambi, now costs more than $270,000 a year, per patient.

And Vertex will set aside some money for community programs, such as the Boys and Girls Clubs of Boston or Martin’s Park, a waterfront park near its headquarters being built in memory of Martin Richard, who was killed in the Boston Marathon bombings.

Though Vertex has made such donations before, executives said the annual commitment of $50 million represents a significant expansion of its good will. A portion of that total, $10 million to start, will be used to seed a new foundation that will make matching grants to Vertex employees who give their own money to charities, among other donations.

The commitment would vault Vertex to the upper echelon of corporate contributors based in Boston: Liberty Mutual said its foundation gave $20 million in 2016, for example, and General Electric’s foundation donated $88 million. Both companies and their employees donated tens of millions more beyond the foundation gifts.

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Vertex declined to identify how much money it expects to donate to programs and causes in the Boston area and how much elsewhere.

The company has spent at least $4.5 million during the past five years on an existing partnership with Boston Public Schools. Vertex is extending its partnership with the Boston schools for another 10 years and will broaden its assistance to include schools in other cities where it has a significant presence, such as San Diego.

“The establishment of a Vertex foundation is a long-term investment in the people of Boston and the neighborhoods of Boston,” said John Barros, Mayor Martin J. Walsh’s economic development chief. “That’s ultimately what we hope for when corporations move their headquarters to the city.”

Vertex established its headquarters in Boston’s Seaport District in 2014.
Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/File
Vertex established its headquarters in Boston’s Seaport District in 2014.

Among other benefits, the Vertex schools initiative enables city students to take classes in the “learning lab” at its headquarters in the Seaport District and puts them on a track for internships, scholarships, and fellowships funded by the company. Vertex is also looking to build a similar learning lab in San Diego, Leiden said.

The company didn’t provide specifics on its commitment to science, technology, and arts education, beyond saying it will spend at least $50 million over 10 years, which includes efforts in Boston, San Diego, and the United Kingdom, where it has facilities. That commitment comes as the availability of tech labor and an educated workforce figures heavily into bids by Boston and other parts of the state to be finalists to host a second headquarters for Internet giant Amazon.

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Improving science, math, and technology education is an important issue for Leiden. He cochairs the state STEM Advisory Council — which aims to boost such programs in schools around Massachusetts — alongside US Representative Joe Kennedy III and Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito.

‘We’re competing with Beijing and Singapore and India, places that are pouring money into STEM education.’

Jeffrey Leiden, Vertex chief executive 

Kennedy said the Vertex commitment underscores the role that he believes the private sector should be playing in improving the state’s schools. “It will be a great selling point to other companies,” Kennedy said of Vertex’s commitment.

“These young kids who are super smart are super excited about science when they’re in the seventh and eighth grades, unfortunately, we only develop a small part of that sea of people for us and others,” said Leiden. “We’re not just competing with New York City, we’re competing with Beijing and Singapore and India, places that are pouring money into STEM education.”

Dan O’Connell, chief executive of the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, said he’s hopeful other local companies will follow Vertex on funding science and math education. (Leiden is a member of O’Connell’s group.)

“We hear that competition is tight for qualified individuals in data science and software engineering,” O’Connell said. “Without the most robust pipeline possible coming out of the schools, starting at the elementary grades, we will not be able to develop the workforce we need for the 21st-century economy.”

Jon Chesto can be reached at jon.chesto@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jonchesto.