Life sciences offers great promise for Bay State

SEPT. 15–BOSTON–Massachusetts stands to gain as many as 100,000 life sciences jobs if it comes up with the right incentives to attract companies in fields like biotechnology, Harvard professor Michael E. Porter told a classroom full of high-profile executives and state officials yesterday.

“I believe this is the single largest economic opportunity for this region,” said Porter, an unofficial economic development consultant to the administration of Governor Mitt Romney. In the competition to attract life sciences work to Massachusetts, rather than other states, “I believe it’s ours to lose,” Porter told The Boston Globe.

Porter’s remarks at the Harvard Business School gathering marked the start of an ambitious effort to leverage the state’s powerful universities, teaching hospitals, and established drug and research companies for economic development. Specifically, organizers hope to lure more biotechnology manufacturing to the state, make better use of university research, and get companies to run more clinical trials here.

One unresolved issue will be how directly the state should aid start-up companies. Porter noted that more than a dozen states aid small firms directly with funds from the national settlement with tobacco companies. House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran has proposed using $110 million of Massachusetts funds from the settlement for similar development purposes.

Genzyme Corp. chief executive Henri Termeer was skeptical of this approach. “For government to be in the venture-capital business, maybe that’s not the skill that government is best at,” he said during a break in the morning agenda.

Robert Pozen, Romney’s secretary for economic affairs and one of the day’s featured speakers, would not comment on Finneran’s proposals and said Porter’s critique should only be seen as the beginning of a strategy that could take up to a year to formally pull together. But during his talk Pozen said the administration already had helped business by preserving tax cuts for manufacturers despite deep reductions in the state’s most recent budget.

“Each of us in this room should be dedicated to the proposition that history should not repeat itself,” said Charles Vest, president of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, referring to how state computer firms missed the rise of personal computing and the Internet. Harvard president Lawrence H. Summers said that research such as genomics has primed the region’s life-sciences sector for fast growth, according to what he called “the principle of increasing returns in knowledge-based industries.”

Companies in Massachusetts still make the state a clear leader in biotechnology, Porter said in his hourlong presentation.

But studies and interviews with many local executives reveal serious handicaps as well, including high housing costs and slow permitting processes that make it hard to build new facilities.

Partly as a result, total employment in biotechnology-related manufacturing has declined in recent years. Life sciences companies also have reduced employment of mid-level workers such as laboratory technicians and environmental specialists.

Barbara Berke, Romney’s director of economic development, said during a later panel discussion that the state hopes to stem the losses partly by making its community college programs more focused on the needs of local employers.

Andrew M. Scibelli, president of Springfield Technical Community College, echoed that and called on officials to make job training efforts a key part of their planning. “This state has the worst work force-development plan I’ve ever seen,” he said.


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