Getting on board with life sciences development

BioReady Lexington attracted 16 companies over two years

IN THE LAST few months, we’ve seen a new biomanufacturing facility open at the New Bedford Office Park; one of the largest life sciences campuses in the state take shape in Woburn; a biotech company move closer to construction just miles from the Boston Marathon Start Line in Hopkinton, and Worcester continue to grow its significant life sciences cluster. Malden, Beverly, and Billerica as biotech mini-clusters? It’s happening, and it hasn’t happened by accident.

Regionalization is an essential step toward not only maintaining the state’s dominance in biotech research and development, but also to staking its claim to biomanufacturing, all while diversifying the workforce.

Lexington is one town that has embraced the life sciences industry and is already reaping the benefits. From 2020 to 2022 alone, 16 life sciences companies moved to Lexington, increasing the town’s total to 48.

Lexington made the intentional decision early on to welcome biopharma companies and took the necessary steps to pass regulations and zoning to attract the industry. To answer resident questions regarding sustainability and safety, Lexington continues to host public forums to engage in conversations and provide education on the benefits of life sciences growth. The town has dedicated years to planning and communication and is seeing it all pay off.

Towns who invest their time and effort in attracting life sciences companies see an influx of job opportunities once projects are completed, not to mention the construction jobs at the start. Many of these new jobs only require a four-year degree and in the case of many entry-level jobs, particularly in biomanufacturing, individuals can begin fruitful careers without a bachelor’s degree.

Once developed, lab and biomanufacturing spaces boost a community’s economic viability when in-person, every day employees create foot traffic throughout a town, directly benefiting restaurants, coffee shops, and other vendors. Getting customers back into local businesses and attracting new customers is a major perk of life sciences expansion within a region, and just what local small businesses need after a difficult two years.

Community members can feel the first-hand benefits of lab space through a diversified municipal tax base and boosted tax revenue for their local government. In turn, towns are provided the opportunity to invest in schools, community centers, improvements to public services, and critical infrastructure repairs. This benefits the overall ecosystem within towns and cleans up necessary fixes that may have been put off due to other funding priorities.

Life sciences development can also bring a sense of civic pride. For Lexington, in particular, two out of the world’s top 20 life sciences companies now have a significant footprint in the town. Lexington was also home to seven companies contributing to the development of a vaccine or a therapy for COVID-19 during the peak of the pandemic.

What is the common denominator across the communities like Lexington, Hopkinton, New Bedford, Malden, Woburn, Beverly, Billerica, and Worcester? They are all BioReady Communities, and nearly all platinum-rated. MassBio’s BioReady Community initiative rates communities on their readiness to host biopharma companies. There are currently 90 BioReady communities across the Commonwealth that have all made a commitment to hosting the life sciences industry, with many more a few simple steps away from earning the designation.

If a city or town is not yet BioReady, there is no better time than now to get on board and welcome life sciences development. In 2021, Massachusetts-based biopharma companies raised a total of $3.8 billion. Biopharma companies in Lexington alone received $155 million in venture capital funding. And, the industry continues to expand. In a recent survey of MassBio members, nearly 80 percent said they planned to hire this year.

MassBio has seen over the years that many communities regularly move from a bronze rating all the way to platinum as their leaders realize the benefits of being BioReady in attracting development. It all starts with a survey around water and sewer access, zoning for lab space and manufacturing by right, and pre-permitted or permitted, followed by baselining infrastructure capacity. Lexington has found that creating a predictable permitting sequence, and having a designated contact in town hall, helps to move along the timeline of the zoning process—the third step.

And where will growing companies find new talent to fill new buildings? MassBio’s workforce analysis released in June found that “the ecosystem must move away from four-year degrees and more towards apprenticeship-style programs,” and that the state can take advantage of regional resources and networks by growing role-specific certification programs in conjunction with community colleges. When more employers locate outside of Route 128, in suburbs and midsize urban centers, new and diverse populations will gain access to lifetime careers.

Gateway Cities have natural assets including young, hardworking residents and large, underutilized industrial sites near transit and walkable amenities. Prioritizing regionalization in these centers of regional economies will build on substantial state investments and take advantage of the minority-serving institutions that already operate there.

MassBio knows what our members need to grow, and we know what it will take to bring new companies to the Bay State. The town of Lexington is living proof of what can be done when local leaders and residents are on board with opening the door to innovation, research, and treatments in their hometown. Patients worldwide are counting on the life-saving science coming out of communities across Massachusetts.

Kendalle Burlin O’Connell is president & chief operating officer of MassBio and Sandhya Iyer is the economic development director of Lexington.