Biotech bills aim to give state an edge

01/30/2006
By From the Boston Globe

 By Jeffrey Krasner, Globe Staff  

The Massachusetts life sciences industry got a big boost last week when Boston Scientific Corp. won the bidding war for Guidant Corp.

But industry officials said this is no time to be complacent about the state's preeminence. They are pushing for an ambitious slate of economic development measures targeting life sciences industries that are contained in two bills pending on Beacon Hill.

If passed, the measures would help early-stage companies, provide assistance to those just starting to manufacture drugs, and help Massachusetts attract new companies from out of state.

''Every state and every country wants these companies," said State Representative Michael Rodrigues, Democrat of Westport, who helped craft the House bill. ''They're targeting the exact companies we're looking to retain. They're looking to poach and steal from us, and they're putting very lucrative offers on the table to entice these companies to move."

Both the House and Senate bills are designed to be broad economic stimulus spending packages to increase investment and create jobs across many industries. The House bill would cost $336 million; the Senate bill, $571 million. Both bills are now before a conference committee that's seeking to craft a compromise that would go to Governor Mitt Romney.

Biotech and life sciences executives hope to persuade lawmakers to retain individual measures key to the industry. They include:

Additional funding of $10 million for the Emerging Technology Fund. The House version would also enable companies to qualify for grants or loans from the fund using contracts as collateral, lowering the bar for some to receive funding.

Building biotechnology and nanotechnology manufacturing facilities costing $45 million at the University of Massachusetts campuses in Lowell and Dartmouth.

Creating a Massachusetts biotechnology authority to serve as a clearinghouse for funding and other aid for the industry.

The technology fund was formed in 2003 with $25 million, and it has used $23 million to provide loans and grants. For example, the fund provided $2.5 million to Spherics Inc. to build and equip a pharmaceutical manufacturing facility in Mansfield, bringing 25 jobs to Massachusetts from Rhode Island.

''That fund has been our most productive economic development tool ever," said Thomas M. Finneran, president of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, an industry group. ''The original capitalization is fully committed and we need an infusion if we're going to continue making progress."

The manufacturing centers would help young companies with experimental drugs ready for testing. Biotech firms at this point in development typically face a difficult choice: Build a company biomanufacturing facility, or pay a contract manufacturing firm to produce the drug. Both options are expensive.

The UMass facilities are intended to provide a lower-cost alternative to commercial contract manufacturing. In addition, the facilities would train students who could staff local biotech manufacturing in the future.

''This will stimulate the growth of a competent workforce," Finneran said.

The House bill would also provide $200 million in bonding to pay for infrastructure improvements. Such funding could be tapped by companies moving to Massachusetts and creating at least 100 new jobs for at least five years. The funds would pay for improvements such as roads and utilities. Companies and the host towns would need to apply jointly for the funding.

With healthcare reform a top legislative priority, biotech officials said they know the parts of the bills they want are vulnerable to cuts.

''We're going to have to fight this one," said Una Ryan, chief executive of Avant Immunotherapeutics Inc. of Needham and chairwoman of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council. ''Other states are just getting ahead of us."