Tuesday, June 12, 2007

How to keep the edge in life sciences at home in Mass.

By Anupendra Sharma
Appeared in Mass High Tech on June 11, 2007

Massachusetts grew solidly through the 1980s and 1990s, but ultimately important employment sectors such as computers, Internet, silicon, finance and engineering slipped away. Either the innovative growth occurred elsewhere, or as in the case of BankBoston, they were consolidated.

Today, two exciting fields hold great promise -- clean tech and life sciences. Competing in clean tech presents challenges. California has more money, Europe has been tinkering with the technology for years, and both China and India have greater need to find immediate solutions.

Life sciences is very different. The state has a combined edge in biotech and med tech. Massachusetts has 770 biotech companies and a handful of top 20 research institutions funded by such entities as the National Institutes of Health. The state is home to two of the world's largest med-tech companies, and has top health care venture capital firms. Our universities and teaching hospitals know how to license technologies and spin out companies. Amazingly, 21 angel networks operate in the area. The concentrated cluster of people, ideas and money is unparalleled. Since we will never be as large as California, or as populous as China or India, we must use our critical mass and concentrated size to our advantage.

If we don't have a strong game plan, life sciences will be another race that we may give up: to Silicon Valley in biotechnology, to China in medical technologies and to India in contract research. The Sunshine State has 5,400 biotechs. There are thousands of med-tech companies in Guangzhou, China, alone. In India, arguably more patients can be signed up in a week for device trials than in a whole year in the United States. Meanwhile, in Massachusetts, annual VC investments are flat at $3 billion, while the number of venture-backed startups is declining.

We have to focus on what's important to entrepreneurs and give them just that. Tax breaks and more office space in Cambridge are arguably important, but leaders, workers, money and global connectivity are more urgent. Below are four vital points:

Channel the money: Massachusetts is a rich state with deep pockets. Angels are beginning to get organized. However, only a few angel groups have health care expertise. Their efforts can be pooled to invest more in life sciences. These resources have to be channeled in an orchestrated manner.

Stop the migration of highly skilled labor: Our employee base of 25-year-olds to 34-year-olds has shrunk by 25 percent since 1990. Big companies and startups have to reverse this tide. We need to ensure our talent stays by expanding internships and getting organized statewide for those who graduate with skills in life sciences.

Grow, train and mentor the pool of entrepreneurs and leaders: One of the nation's leading med-tech headhunters said Boston is tough to hire into or hire out of. So we have to develop what we have. Large corporations have to shoulder their share of the burden in training future leaders, so if this talent quits, they stay in the statewide ecosystem. Let us find mechanisms that bring managers with entrepreneurial spirit out of their cubicles and get them exposed to early-stage ventures.

Connect Boston directly to the world: Why is India, a growing R&D powerhouse, setting up operations in New Jersey? Where are Israeli companies moving into the United States? Why do I need to connect through another city to get to Israel, China or India? It is imperative that we connect Boston to these innovation clusters. It gives us better, faster access to ideas, people and markets. We will maintain world-class R&D, the way Silicon Valley has managed to do so in technology, in spite of the noise of outsourcing.

Collaboration will be the key to winning. We won't sell our startups too early. Serial entrepreneurs successful at running billion-dollar companies will stay when they see an open, welcoming, globally connected, low-friction culture that focuses on mentoring and educating entrepreneurs, and is teeming with excitement akin to the Valley's technology scene. We can achieve this because we are compact, connected and willing -- more so than any other cluster anywhere.

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