CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – Boston is undoubtedly the place to be if you want to go into biotech.
Along with San Francisco, the Boston area was where biotech as an industry had its roots. In the 1980s and 1990s, the industry started gaining traction, with companies moving into Cambridge to set up shop.
The metro area is home to almost 1,000 biotechnology companies — from the earliest startups, to $US50 billion companies — academic centres, and life science organisations.
Boston has been home to major developments in how we treat cancer, therapies to tackle rare genetic diseases, and research for cutting-edge technologies like the gene-editing tool CRISPR.
Despite $US1 billion+ investments in New York and other efforts to spark the industry, there’s something missing there that Boston seems to have. With that in mind, when Business Insider recently visited the city, we asked locals: What’s the “special sauce” that makes the Boston area such a hub for drug discovery and development?
Here’s what we found.
With Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the number of other institutions in the metro area, Boston has no shortage of scientific research happening. Even for a pharmaceutical company with operations around the world like Sanofi, there's something noteworthy happening in the area.
'Boston for some reason is a hub of science. It's probably like no other place that I know actually,' said Harry Kleanthous, the US head of research for Sanofi Pasteur.
Steven Holtzman, CEO of Decibel Therapeutics, said that when he was working for a company called Millenium Pharmaceuticals in the 1990s, the team was trying to decide where to set up shop. It came down to San Francisco and Boston.
'What we said was that proximity to cutting edge university basic research was necessary but it was not going to be sufficient going forward,' he said. 'What you really needed to do was hook into the medical establishment as well, because we were beginning to understand the role of the patient.'
That put Boston in the lead, with medical schools situated near institutions like Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Brigham and Women's Hospital.
'There's a greater biomedical establishment here,' Holtzman said. 'That was the key tipping point.'
People can be fairly particular about where they want to live, so if you're looking to recruit for a new startup, having a presence in the Boston area is a key move.
'What seems to happen is that people in Boston don't want to move to California, people in California don't want to move to Boston,' Matt Hawryluk, chief business officer at Gritstone Oncology said. Gritstone has offices in the Bay Area as well, so they're able to recuit folks from both coasts without making anyone move.
There's also a lot of diversity in the types of jobs people have in Cambridge, from the smallest startup with 10 employees, to venture capital funds, to academics researching cutting-edge ideas.
Agios CEO David Schenkein said that's how he's been able to grow his company over the years from a blank piece of paper to one drug submitted with the FDA for approval. 'To have that talent pool to draw from, has made the difference to allow us to be able to do that,' he said.
That makes it easy to have an entire career in one area, as opposed to uprooting your family.
'You have the critical mass to keep people here for their entire careers, where they don't have to go anywhere else,' Kelly Page, Takeda's vice president of strategic planning in oncology, told Business Insider.
There's even a joke about it: For many of the jobs in the area, you don't even need to change your parking spot. Page recalled one employee she hired who hadn't changed parking garages even though he'd changed jobs three times.
Abbie Celniker, a partner at Third Rock Ventures, said that she's really seen the Boston area change in the last eight years. Back then, there was nowhere to grab lunch. Now there's a whole scene, where people can mingle and network -- and she's able to grab lunch close by to her office.
Having that ability to socialise with others in the industry makes the difference when compared to other cities that have a smaller biotech presence, she said.
While Cambridge is technically where the majority of biotech companies are based, some are expanding out into Boston, especially as big pharma giants have moved in. Decibel Therapeutics, where Steven Holtzman is CEO, set up shop near Fenway Park, the first biotech company to do so.
Holtzman picked the area not just for the proximity to the baseball field, but more generally because it was a 24/7 space where he thought employees could feel safe at all times and have easy access to housing, shopping, and restaurants. Plus, it's just a 17-minute walk away from Longwood Medical Area, where a number of medical institutions are based.
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