By Mark D. Uehling
July 11, 2002 | Novartis AG did not need to be wooed. No special session of the legislature was required. Proximity to brainpower was reason enough for the company to move 400 scientists - and maybe up to 900 -- to the eastern U.S. hub of biotechnology, Cambridge, Mass. Novartis will uproot scientists in New Jersey to base its worldwide R&D operations in Technology Square, a research park owned by M.I.T.
Competitors such as Pfizer, Wyeth, AstraZeneca, and Abbott Labs have all moved or expanded into the Bay State in recent years, giving officials some bragging rights. How long will the good news last? Rival states remain unconcerned, citing projected growth that would allow every region of the country to share in the industry's expansion.
As Garrison Keillor might say, all the hotbeds for biotechnology may be above average. Another possibility: current leaders, whether San Diego or the Baltimore-Bethesda corridor, will solidify their positions, and benefit from expanding labs and corporate alliances.
For now, though, relocation planners in Massachusetts are aglow. "There is continuing momentum, and that momentum will only grow," says John Urban, director of the Massachusetts Office of Business Development. "The large European pharmaceutical companies will be increasingly locating here."
Urban notes the international eminence of Massachusetts General Hospital, not to mention M.I.T. and Harvard University, and Boston's close proximity to major airports in Europe as factors. So is its time zone, which allows people in Europe and Boston (but not, say, San Francisco) to communicate by phone during normal working hours.
For Novartis, the decision to relocate to Cambridge was not an anguished one. "It's almost a no-brainer," says Thomas Hughes, executive director of metabolic diseases pharmacology at the drug company. "This is the place to go if you want to be in the midst of an environment that will really help your drug development and discovery process."
Although other portions of the country have outstanding research centers, Hughes says Cambridge has a rare concentration of medical research facilities. "Given that we are looking to focus on diabetes, cardiovascular and infectious diseases, there is no one area in the world, much less the country, where you can so effectively tap into the quality and extent of efforts that's going on in Cambridge. It's more focused on the medicine," he says.
California Remains Calm
So are biotech leaders in California concerned? Does a cast-iron bull worry about mosquitoes? In Northern California, it's not clear that they've even heard about the good news in Massachussetts. "We very rarely put any effort into trying to attract someone from outside," says Sue Markland Day, president of the Bay Area Bioscience Center.
Growth within California continues to be robust, she says. Day counts 590 biotech companies in Northern California, more than twice as many as Urban can cite in Massachusetts. South San Francisco's Genentech Inc. alone, she notes, has spun out 30 companies, and recently expanded its lab space.
Day says one reason for San Francisco's success is cultural, with veteran venture capitalists adept at finding good ideas and people who can see those ideas to fruition. "We have a very large pool of CFOs, CEOs, COOs," Day says.
She also says the academic culture in the Bay area is unique. "It's very common for a faculty or researcher to move back and forth between the companies and the universities," says Day. "I don't know what the practice is in the Boston area, but certainly elsewhere that just doesn't happen. What you have here is almost peer pressure to get your hand into the biotech if you're a faculty member."
Day says she is periodically asked by cities and states elsewhere how to duplicate what California has done. "The reason you can't, primarily, is we've been at it longer," she says. "The other thing is, you get more and more ideas the more crowded people are. People want to move their companies where there are already concentrations of companies. Biotech companies love to cluster. It's like cancer cells that stack on top of each other. The closer they can get, the better."
The people in Cambridge and California are hardly worried about North Carolina -- but maybe they should be. The state's business, political, and academic leaders have scraped together a major effort to focus on genomics and bioinformatics. There are 143 companies in the biotech field there, employing 17,000 people. Barry Teater, director of corporate communications for the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, says three universities have put together an $800 million effort to establish academic programs in genomics and bioinformatics. A new computing grid for bioinformatics (see Grid and Bear It, April Bio-IT World, p. 56) won't hurt.
Hoping to make sure there is a large and well-trained labor pool, North Carolina recently had a summit to make teachers at all educational levels aware of the industry's need for technically proficient workers. "There is a lot going on here," says Teater. "Not everybody knows about it. You'll see North Carolina will be in everybody's top five list for bioinformatics and genomics."
He continues: "We have the world's largest concentration of contract research organization and testing companies. We have three major universities cranking out graduates in all the life sciences. We've got major multinational companies like BASF, GlaxoSmithKline, Syngenta, Aventis. So there's critical mass."