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Will Greater Boston’s commuting nightmare derail biotech’s growth?

Kendall Square (above, beyond the Longfellow Bridge), ground zero for the state’s biotech industry, is too hard to get to, business leaders say. Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/File 2019/Globe Staff

Biotechnology jobs in Massachusetts grew at the fastest annual clip in more than a decade in 2018, according to a study by a trade group, but its author says the growth is unsustainable unless transportation in the state improves.

The number of biopharma jobs grew by 6.4 percent to 74,256 last year, the largest increase in 11 years, according to the annual “industry snapshot” released Tuesday by the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council.

In the past 10 years, the report says, the number of people working in the industry in Massachusetts has increased by almost 20,000, or 35 percent.

But the author, Elizabeth Steele, vice president of programs and global affairs for the Cambridge-based lobbying group, said the trend can’t continue unless the government improves transportation, including the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority and highways.


“The future struggle for the industry is making sure that the state’s infrastructure, specifically transportation, is able to sustain this type of growth and make sure it’s able to work for our companies and employees,” she said in an interview.

Given the sector’s boom, why does she believe commuting poses such a threat?

As it turns out, MassBio recently conducted an online survey of biotech commuters. The trade group plans to issue the results next month. But Steele said it’s obvious that getting to and from work has reached a “breaking point” — based on how many employees wanted to participate in the survey. The last such poll, in 2016, drew about 300 responses, she said. This one attracted 2,000.

The mood of those who responded, she said, “doesn’t look very good.”

That’s not surprising, given the June 11 train derailment that caused massive delays on the MBTA’s Red Line. It serves Kendall Square, the Cambridge neighborhood that’s ground zero for the biotech industry in Massachusetts.

About two weeks after the derailment, CEOs and managers of about three dozen employers that collectively employ tens of thousands of workers in Kendall Square wrote to state officials to say the public transit system had entered a “state of emergency.” The business leaders included executives from Biogen and several other drug companies.


The letter came days after Transportation for Massachusetts, an advocacy group, called for adding 25 cents to the state’s gasoline tax (essentially doubling it) and imposing the state sales tax on Uber and Lyft rides (in lieu of the current nominal 20 cents-per-ride fee). The group also called for congestion-pricing tolls on highways within the Route 128 beltway.

While many of the previously aired concerns about commuting have focused on the challenges of getting to and from Cambridge and Boston, MassBio officials say their soon-to-be-released report shows discontent among biotech commuters in a much broader swath of the state.

Among the other notable findings in the industry snapshot released Tuesday:

■  Venture capital invested in Massachusetts companies reached a record high in 2018, with $4.8 billion invested in biopharma companies. Cambridge businesses drew a disproportionate share of the money, receiving 63 percent of all venture capital. The pace of such investment fell in the first half of 2019, totaling just under $1.5 billion in that period.

■  Eighteen Massachusetts biotech companies went public in 2018, representing nearly a third of all US-based biotech IPOs. More than three-quarters of the 18 were in Cambridge. In the first half of this year, nine Massachusetts biotechs went public, suggesting a trend similar to last year’s.


■  Takeda Pharmaceutical Co., of Tokyo, has vaulted past Sanofi to become the biggest biopharma employer in Massachusetts. Takeda had 4,927 employees in the state, compared with 4,800 for Sanofi, although a Takeda spokeswoman said in July that the number will soon exceed 5,000.

Takeda recently closed a blockbuster $62 billion deal to buy Shire, inheriting some 3,000 Shire workers in the state, most of them in Lexington and Cambridge. Takeda is positioned to grow more when the company moves its US headquarters from suburban Chicago to Massachusetts by year’s end.

■  The biggest Massachusetts-based drug company continues to be Biogen, of Cambridge, with 2,400 workers. The next-biggest is Vertex Pharmaceuticals, of Boston, with 1,741 employees.

Jonathan Saltzman can be reached at jsaltzman@globe.com.