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Mass. to Use $2.5M of Life-Sci Act to Give Younger Researchers Leg-Up in Industry

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BOSTON – The quasi-public agency that oversees Massachusetts’ $1 billion, 10-year Life Sciences Act has approved spending a combined $2.5 million to subsidize life-sci companies that hire paid college-level interns, and to fund younger researchers.

Funding for both programs will come from the $12 million first-year budget of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, whose board approved the grant programs at its monthly meeting here on Feb. 25.

The center agreed to spend $500,000 to launch the Life Sciences Internship Challenge, which will link academic institutions, research centers, and businesses with at least 100 interns pursuing science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM, majors.

The center's stipend funds could be matched by companies and research institutions already offering internships "where feasible," according to the life-sci center's web site. Companies and institutions could be exempted from that rule if they persuade the center's board that they cannot afford to pay for internships.

Employers are expected, however, to provide "a dedicated mentor and meaningful internship opportunity that ties to the academic focus of eligible students."

"Our goal is to put companies and students together. It's also to encourage companies that don’t have internship programs right now to offer them," Susan Windham-Bannister, president and CEO of the life sciences center, told the board. "Part of what we're looking to do is not just give students a chance to get the hands-on experience that makes them even more ready to go into the workforce. We're also trying to match up students with future employers."

The internship challenge would fund between 100 and 200 interns each year, or between 1,000 and 2,000 interns during the 10-year life of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Act.

As a result the program would be a small, albeit significant, piece of a puzzle that has vexed the Bay State's life-sciences business and academic leaders: how to find, then develop, professionals to fill the approximately 11,000 new positions the state's life-sci companies are expected to create between 2006 and 2014?

The 11,000-job projection came from the first project funded by the center, the Life Sciences Talent Initiative report released last September by the state-funded University of Massachusetts' Donahue Institute.

"The internship challenge is just the first of what will be a full set of workforce-development programs sponsored by the center. The internship challenge will meet an important need that was identified in the LSTI report, but it by no means is intended to be the Center's only approach," Angus McQuilken, a spokesman for the Massachusetts Life Sciences center, told BioRegion News last week.

McQuilken said the center has a Life Sciences Talent Initiative Steering Committee "that is meeting on a regular basis to discuss and develop additional program ideas in this area."

The report concluded that leaders from the life-sciences industry must join with their counterparts in academia and state government to step up worker training — in many cases by emulating smaller efforts now scattered across Massachusetts. [BRN, Sept. 22, 2008]

"Clearly, the state has the potential for greater than business-as-usual growth, but meeting the demand for talent will be critical to realizing that potential," the report concluded.

The center has set a formula for selecting the winning grantees: At least half the internships would be awarded to for-profit companies, a share that could rise to 75 percent depending on participation by academic and nonprofit institutions without PhD or graduate programs, such as hospitals and research institutes. If they participate fully in the program, academic centers and nonprofit institutions would each receive 25 percent of the internships.

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Student interns are paid $15 per hour, up to a maximum stipend of $4,800 for eight weeks of work. Jay Gonzalez, state undersecretary of administration and finance for Gov. Deval Patrick, urged the center to track the progress of student interns over several years, in order to gauge the program's success.

Josh Boger, president and CEO of Vertex Pharmaceuticals, and a member of the life-sci center board, said he had been reassured by Massachusetts' secretary of labor and workforce development, Suzanne Bump, that the internship challenge does not duplicate existing state workforce development programs focused on life sciences jobs. They include:

• A Genzyme program funded by Bump's office in which 10 juniors from UMass’ campuses at Amherst, Boston, Dartmouth, and Lowell received paid internships at the biotech giant, plus $5,000 scholarships toward their senior years and “consideration” for hiring after graduation.

• The 64-credit, two-year degree program in biotechnology and biomanufacturing launched in 2007 by Mount Wachusett Community College. Its goal is to teach students skills needed for technical worker jobs at a new $750 million, 400,000-square-foot biologics-manufacturing plant Bristol-Myers Squibb is set to open 20 miles west of the school on the 89-acre former site of the US Army base at Fort Devens.

• A program to retrain workers laid off by Polaroid Corp. for life-sciences jobs. The initiative was developed by Worcester Polytechnic Institute and Commonwealth Corporation, a Boston-based workforce-development consultancy.

Interns are eligible if they have completed at least their junior year in a public or private four-year college, or university, or if they have graduated within the past year from those institutions. Students that concentrate in STEM subjects in Massachusetts-based community colleges can pursue internships as well, provided they have completed their associates' degree, a certificate, or the equivalent of a year's coursework related to the internship.

The center would allow students to post their resumes and information on its website, as well as send e-mails to employers inviting them to look at the posted resumes. Employers are expected to contact and interview candidates, select interns for their programs, and notify the center of their desire to provide internships to students.

"Our skilled workers are one of the key reasons why Massachusetts continues to be a world leader in life sciences," Windham-Bannister said. "And we especially want to make sure that the next generation of kids, young people who are interested in life sciences careers have the opportunity to really explore this field, and that the companies, or nonprofits or academic institutions that are looking for those workers have a way to find them."

The life-sciences center board also committed itself to spending $2 million over the next two fiscal years on the second round of grants to be awarded under the center’s New Investigator Matching Grant Program. The grants will be awarded at $100,000 per year over two years for up to 10 researchers, to be matched by the research institutions where the investigators are working.

Windham-Bannister said a key objective of the grant program "is to keep our young scientists in the field and help them to keep their research establishments and laboratories, and possibly secure larger-scale funding. Many of these entrepreneurs do go on to start their companies, and create jobs in our commonwealth."

The second round of new investigator matching grants is nearly half of the $3.75 million, three-year pilot round approved for 11 new Massachusetts-based scientists last July. Those grants were within one of three programs totaling $10.6 million that the center’s board approved during 2008.

In addition to the investigator money, the original round of center grants includes:

• A combined $4.5 million over three years to six academic-business partnerships pursuing cooperative research with a high potential for commercialization. Approved for funds last December were partnerships that included Brigham & Women's Hospital, Harvard University's School of Engineering and Applied Science, Immune disease Institute, Massachusetts General Hospital, UMass Lowell, and the UMass Medical School in Worcester, Mass.

• A combined $3.75 million over three years to five universities and academic medical centers seeing to recruit top-tier researchers to their faculties. Approved for funds last July were Boston University, Brandeis, and the Amherst, Boston, and Lowell campuses of the University of Massachusetts.

Additional funding for faculty and cooperative research projects was stopped, with no decision on future rounds, while the second round of new investigator grants was slashed under state budget cuts agreed to by Patrick and state legislative leaders last October. The cuts reduced the center’s first-year budget from the $25 million called for under the Life Sciences Act.

Robert Sepucha, the life-sciences center's senior vice president and general counsel, offered updates on a pair of grant award programs for which the quasi-public state-created agency has begun reviewing applications.

As of Feb. 25, the Life Sciences Accelerator program, the center's flagship investment program, has received 14 completed applications and 53 partial applications. That's better than January's yield of six complete and 23 partial applications.

The center has received six completed grant applications for the Life Sciences Tax Incentive Program, with another 27 applications partially completed. Last month the center had no complete applications, and 16 partially-completed ones on hand.

The accelerator program, awards loans of between $100,000 and $500,000 to assist early-stage companies and translational research projects seeking to conduct research and proof of concept studies they hope will result in attracting additional funding. The center will combine its capital with matching grants and investments from the federal government, foundations, non-profit agencies, institutional investors, and other sources of capital.

Deadline for accelerator applications is March 6, with the center's board set to approve winning loan recipients on April 19. More details and an application are available here.

The tax incentive program will offer a total $25 million this fiscal year in tax incentives to companies engaged in life-sciences research and development, commercialization, and manufacturing in Massachusetts. More details and an application are available here.

The tax incentive program has a May 15 deadline, with a decision and announcement of winners expected at the end of September.

"Applicants for both programs are doing groundbreaking work in drug delivery, regenerative medicine, device development, pharmaceutical testing, and manufacturing," Sepucha told the board.

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