Bring On More Centers Of Biotech Success. Here’s How
The Biden administration has just announced a plan to build 31 new tech hubs across the country. Seasoned biotech exec and entrepreneur Grace Colón lays out a blueprint for turning cities into booming life science centers like Boston and San Francisco.
By Grace E. Colón
Leaders from Baltimore, New York, and Phoenix recently announced plans to turn their cities into biotech innovation hubs that rival Boston and San Francisco.
It’s easy to see why politicians would want to emulate these hotbeds. The life sciences attract the kind of skilled workers and high-paying jobs that can ignite any regional economy.
Of course, creating such a nerve center is easier said than done. I’ve spent most of my adult life in biotech hubs, from my graduate-student days at MIT in Cambridge, MA to working for major pharmaceutical companies, biotech startups, and venture capital firms on both coasts. I’ve learned what works, and what doesn’t.
The first step for local leaders is to identify existing institutions that can anchor the project.
North Carolina’s Research Triangle, for example, is based around three universities: UNC-Chapel Hill, Duke, and NC State.
In the 1990s, Research Triangle became a center for outsourced contract research and clinical trials, drawing on analytical and statistical expertise from the local universities. Today, the Research Triangle is the fourth biggest life-science hub in the country.
The second step is to eliminate regulatory and financial barriers to innovation.
Greater Boston, which includes Cambridge, was already home to MIT and Harvard when the Cambridge City Council voted in 1977 to permit and regulate DNA experimentation. Until then, would-be entrepreneurs had been nervous about how this cutting-edge field would be treated by the legal system.
The ensuing explosion in bioscience activity continues to this day — so much so that Massachusetts accounts for about 15% of new drug development in the United States and 7% of the global total.
In addition, cities and states can remove obstacles to innovation by providing tax breaks, loans, and grants to help companies get off the ground.
Of course, not every would-be biotech nexus will have the same needs. Policymakers must determine what kinds of enticements are right for their local economies.
But perhaps the most critical ingredient for building an innovation hub is a skilled workforce. That requires policies that support a robust talent pipeline.
Specifically, academic institutions and companies need to engage with a diverse array of potential life-science students early in their lives. My own interest in biotech might not have come about had I not been invited, at 16, to participate in a program for high schoolers at MIT. As a girl growing up in Puerto Rico, this opportunity opened new doors.
To recruit talent for the long term, businesses need to welcome individuals of all backgrounds. Multiple studies have shown that companies with diverse executive teams on average significantly outperform those without.
Lawmakers should also work toward a national funding package for regional biotech R&D. This funding would connect and support researchers, entrepreneurs, and investors so that groundbreaking ideas are free to flourish in more communities across the country.
The best path to biotech success will be different for each city. But by building on institutional strengths, investing in workers, and knocking down barriers to success, there’s no reason more of them can’t get there.
(Colón, Ph.D., has over two decades of biotechnology and entrepreneurship experience. The former president and CEO of InCarda Therapeutics, Inc., she currently serves on the boards of the MIT Board of Trustees and several early-stage life science companies. This piece originally ran in The Hill.)