The new president of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council will have his hands full this fall working with former colleagues on Beacon Hill to secure the billion dollars promised over a decade by Gov. Deval Patrick, as well as helping extend the state’s life sciences cluster west, well beyond Boston-Cambridge.
Robert Coughlin should be up to those and other challenges facing the state’s life science industry, observers said in interviews, given his years in elected and appointed government service, his previous background in the business world, and perhaps most importantly, his long public advocacy for the industry as the best hope for curing diseases like the one that afflicts his five-year-old son.
Coughlin was named Aug. 13 as president of the biotech council, capping a five-month search by the state’s largest life sciences group. He is expected to give up his current job as the state’s undersecretary of housing and economic development and start work for the biotech council by October. However, “We’re hoping he’ll start by the end of September,” said Mike Webb, chairman of the biotech council’s board of directors, in an interview.
Coughlin was vacationing last week and unavailable to discuss his appointment, Webb said.
September promises to be a busy month for life sciences advocates in Massachusetts. On Sept. 6 and 7, the state will hold hearings into ending restrictions on stem-cell research imposed by Patrick’s predecessor Mitt Romney. Also next month, state lawmakers are expected to start reviewing Patrick’s Life Sciences Initiative — $1 billion over 10 years to attract and retain biotech companies, subsidize research, and train future professionals [BioRegionNews, May 14].
Webb, the CEO of Ascent Therapeutics in Sherborn, Mass., told BioRegion News that Coughlin stood out to board members from other candidates because of his experience both as a government official and a business executive. Coughlin held a variety of business and local elected positions in his hometown of Dedham, Mass., before winning election three times to the Massachusetts House of Representatives, where he served four years before joining Patrick’s administration.
“We expect our council to play a big role in shaping the governor’s $1 billion life sciences initiative. We also over the next year expect the new president to lead a strategy formulation effort for the council,” Webb said.
That effort, Webb added, will take the form of an updated strategic plan. The council operates on a plan crafted about five years ago, but hopes a new plan will help it boost membership and generate the additional revenues it would need to expand its staff beyond the current 12 people and grow its budget beyond the current size of about $4 million.
A new strategic plan will help the council accomplish what should be one of its key priorities going forward, according to an observer of the state’s life sciences industry.
“They’ve got to be incredibly transparent in what they’re going to do, and have some short-term and longer-term goals, and make sure that’s articulated to the broad constituent base,” said Gerald McDougall, partner in charge of PricewaterhouseCoopers’ Health Sciences practice.
Short-term goals, he said, should include keeping the biotech initiative on the front burner, as well as ensuring the industry receives its promised initiative from Patrick’s administration and the legislature: “If that money is spent wisely, that will be a partial catalyst for the future growth of the life sciences industry in New England.”
Over the long term, McDougall said, the council will need to navigate biotechs through the state’s complex web of local and state government rules, especially if they are looking to relocate to Massachusetts or expand operations in the Bay State: “You can’t let that complexity fall on the shoulders of these companies.”
Despite the state’s three-decade reputation as a leader in the biotech and pharmaceutical industries, a consensus of industry professionals and officials in recent months has concluded Massachusetts could eventually lose its edge if it fails to address quality-of-life problems such as worsening traffic and high housing costs, and if other states continue to spend millions to attract life sciences companies and their jobs.
The need for addressing quality-of-life issues was among key findings of “Super Cluster: Ideas, Perspectives and Updates from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Industry,” a report issued in May by PricewaterhouseCoopers, the health policy research group New England Healthcare Institute, and the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, a state agency that promotes development of technology-based industries.
McDougall — a member of the “Super Cluster” report advisory team — said the biotech council can help address those issues by bringing together industry leaders and officials, and helping them in turn draw attention and support from the broader public. “They need to be the convener. They need to be the catalyst in terms of keeping these issues in the forefront, not letting them drop off the radar screen.”
Evolving into a convener for state issues of interest to biotechs will be important if Massachusetts is to remain a leading state for the industry, according to a former state elected official who now an adviser to a biotech company.
“It’s not a question of where Massachusetts is today, because we’re in great shape with regard to biotech, but where Massachusetts is going to be in five or 10 or 15 years,” said Warren Tolman, a lawyer with the Boston firm Holland and Knight, and advisor to BioEngine, a Medford, Mass., regenerative medicine company, on state and local government issues.
“People who are running [biotech] companies are hoping that Massachusetts will continue to be a place that will nurture their industry, and want a state government that recognizes the importance of it. And with Bob Coughlin, you’re going to have a great spokesman,” said Tolman, who served as a state senator and state representative in Massachusetts from 1991 to 1999.
With the industry increasingly looking to state government for subsidies, he said, it makes sense for the biotech council to choose a political insider as its leader.
“To the extent that the role of the council and the industry, more importantly, is impacted by issues and statements and legislation from Beacon Hill, it’s hard to be an ostrich here at a time when so much activity is centered at the State House,” Tolman said.
Tolman said Coughlin’s contacts within state government should prove as valuable as those of his predecessor, Tom Finneran, who stepped down in January.
Finneran had been speaker of the Massachusetts House for eight years when he took the biotech council presidency in 2004. It was an unlikely career change for Finneran, who as speaker had blocked efforts to fund stem-cell research.
Susan Houston, executive director of the Massachusetts Alliance for Economic Development, said the biotech council “has a real opportunity in terms of economic development” that Coughlin can capitalize on.
Earlier this year Coughlin’s agency worked with the alliance and the biotech council to launch BioSites, a web portal that details the state’s available lab, manufacturing, and office sites that are ready for development by life sciences companies [BioRegion News, May 28].
A visit to BioSites on Aug. 16 turned up 96 properties, up from 70 when the site was launched in May. BioSites is within the web site Massachusettssitefinder.com, a broader site-selection portal created by the alliance and the state. Houston said that web site saw a spike in monthly hits from 60,000 to 80,000 after the biotech portal was launched.
Boosting the Numbers
Webb said the biotech council will look to Coughlin to boost another set of numbers — namely the number of new members — from biotech companies that have left Boston and Cambridge in recent years, to suburban highway corridors like Route 128 and the unofficial border of the greater Boston region’s outer fringe, Interstate 495.
“It was an absolute requirement that all the candidates have a very good knowledge of and experience with the Massachusetts state government. We were looking for someone who had knowledge and experience of the state Legislature. That is something that typically biotech executives do not get in their careers.”
“As our industry gets bigger, we’re having a greater impact across a wider geography, so we believe that we will need to work with other groups and collaborate, particularly on the economic development front. Our role will increase,” Webb said.
The biotech council hopes Coughlin will find at least as much success boosting membership as his predecessor did. Under Finneran, the council more than doubled its number of members, attracting more than half of its current membership roster of more than 500 biotechnology companies, academic institutions, research hospitals, and service organizations.
Finneran stepped down as speaker of the Massachusetts House to take the biotech council’s presidency in 2004, at an annual salary reported at $416,000. Finneran resigned in January after only two years in the post, soon after pleading guilty to a felony obstruction of justice charge in a redistricting dispute. He agreed to a $25,000 fine and 18 months of unsupervised probation, and now hosts a morning radio talk show at WRKO-AM.
“What happened withTom … was an unfortunate situation. But we shouldn’t forget that the organization was headed in the right direction,” McDougall said. “There are a lot of companies that want to relocate here in the Boston-Massachusetts area, and it has been very difficult for them. [The council has] really broken down a lot of barriers and made some great strides. Maybe that is the type of skill set that’s needed to run this kind of an organization, one that understands more of the political dynamics.”
Since Finneran’s resignation, the biotech council has been run by two executives — chief operating officer Mark Robinson and Eustacia Reidy, chief of external affairs.
In addition, the biotech council’s 24-member board came to insist that any successor to Finneran have extensive government contacts. Coughlin gave up his state House seat earlier this year when Patrick appointed him economic development undersecretary, reporting to the agency’s secretary Daniel O’Connell.
“It was an absolute requirement that all the candidates have a very good knowledge of and experience with the Massachusetts state government,” Webb said. “We were looking for someone who had knowledge and experience of the state Legislature. That is something that typically biotech executives do not get in their careers.”
The council began its search for a new president in March, Webb said, through a search committee chaired by Mark Leuchtenberger, the president and CEO of Targanta Therapeutics, a biopharmaceutical company headquartered in Cambridge, Mass.
Another factor in Coughlin’s appointment, Webb said, was his years of public support for biotech companies. As a father whose youngest son, Bobby, has cystic fibrosis, Coughlin has publicly shared his family’s story in talks that have also hailed the state’s biotech industry for its work against CF and other diseases.
“His personal experience with the disease, his relationships with biotech companies through the foundations that are working on curing the disease, the experience of his own family member in clinical trials, really made him intimately more familiar with the industry and how it works than many people would ever be,” Webb said.
In a video playable on the web site of Children’s Hospital Boston, Coughlin related how he and his wife came to learn Bobby had cystic fibrosis, and how they sought treatment for their son.
During a May 6 address at the BIO 2007 global conference in Boston, Coughlin said the state shared the same esteem for life sciences professionals that he had, especially after meeting with researchers from AstraZeneca on the day the company broke ground for a $100 million, 132,000-square-foot expansion of its research facility in Waltham, Mass.
“To the scientists that come up with these ever so life-important and life-changing developments, we appreciate what you do. We know that your profession is noble. We want to be your partner in government so that Massachusetts will be the place for your industry,” he said.