The new head of the Massachusetts agency overseeing the state’s life-sciences support effort said it has begun staking out key roles it can play to help expand the sector’s workforce, distribute the $1 billion available under a new 10-year initiative to boost the industry, and coordinate the activity of leaders in schools, businesses, and nonprofit research institutions.
“I’d like to think because of our unique position, we could be more of the orchestra conductor,” Susan Windham-Bannister, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, told BioRegion News last week. “We’re in a position to get out and do more of an inventory of who’s doing what and where, and how we can we bring this all together into a more coordinated and overarching approach that looks at a broader set of needs and enables us to invest, and maybe even move resources around.”
She said the “coordinated approach” is being applied first toward developing priorities, which the center plans to articulate later this fall, then on implementing those goals. “By the end of October or early November, I’d like to communicate what those priorities are going to be. … We will have a series of strategic targets, if you will, that will be guiding us initially.”
One likely priority, she said, will be supporting the efforts of schools and businesses to train students for the number of life-sci jobs that Massachusetts companies are expected to generate as the industry grows. A study released earlier this year by the state-funded University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute concluded that the state’s life-sciences workforce will rise by 1.3 percent each year through 2014 — twice the state average projected by the New England Economic Partnership.
“One theme that I hear over and over — it doesn’t matter if I’m talking with a pharma company, a biotechnology company, a university, a medical center — [is] this issue of workforce development, matching the skills of the workforce with the needs of the life-sciences community. It keeps coming up,” Windham-Bannister told BRN. “Do we have the right curricula in place? Is it really the case, as we so often hear, that the jobs in life sciences require at least a BA? Or is it really that they require a certain skill set?”
Many life-sci jobs, she noted, do not require PhD or postdoctoral degrees. “We’re very interested in what vocational schools, community colleges, and collaborative curricular development across different types of academic institutions, together with industry, can produce that would lead to a better, more appropriate pipeline,” she added.
Windham-Bannister spoke with BRN last week, about three months after leaving her position as managing vice president at Abt Bio-Pharma Solutions, armed with 35 years in the life sciences and healthcare industries, to become the $285,000-a-year top day-to-day officer at the MLSC.
Windham-Bannister said to help meet her goals the MLSC is working to assemble an “A-team” of “10 to 11” senior staffers by the end of October; establish the grant programs and regional life-sci centers called for under the initiative; and join with the state-funded University of Massachusetts to finish a workforce-training strategy set to be released later this month.
“My hope is to have that team in place by the end of October,” she said. “We need to start being clear to the marketplace about our priorities, our decision-making criteria, and how do you approach the center to request funds. There’s a lot to do.”
Over the next year, she said, the center will set criteria for declaring life-sciences companies “certified,” thus eligible for funding through the initiative; and develop standards governing the use of intellectual property developed through research funded by MLSC.
“We’ll take a hard look at how California has handled [IP], how North Carolina has handled it, [and] how Texas may handle it” in light of its $3 billion cancer initiative, passed by Lone Star State voters last November. The Texas effort allows its institutions to invest in out-of-state research, something Windham-Bannister said the center is interested in facilitating.
The center’s activities would move it beyond simply funding grants through the initiative, toward more of the life-sciences development and support roles played nationwide by some state-funded groups, such as the North Carolina Biotechnology Center.
Windham-Bannister said MLSC was responding to a consensus from life sciences professionals in academia and business that wants to see better coordination among the institutions and leaders who comprise the Bay State’s life-sciences sector, following visits made during an “active listening phase” in the months since she became the center’s top day-to-day officer.
“They are looking to us to give some thought — and it is a mandate in the law — to develop a database. We will decide the elements that should be in the database that would make it broadly useful to the commonwealth, or maybe even beyond,” she said. “They’re looking for us to be a clearinghouse of information.”
The needs for better workforce training, and better collaboration among players in the state’s life-sciences effort, have been articulated publicly and often in recent years — notably in five reports examining the industry’s strengths and challenges.
While the reports concluded Massachusetts’ life-sciences sector had eroded in recent years, Windham-Bannister took a more optimistic view. Despite challenges such as the shortage of visas for overseas workers seeking jobs in US life-sci companies, “things are going along quite well in Massachusetts,” she said.
She cited the $1 billion state-funded initiative and a $400 million commitment disclosed last week by philanthropists Eli and Edythe Broad to their namesake institute, which brings together researchers from Harvard and MIT.
“They’re looking for us to be a clearinghouse of information.”
Boosting the state’s bio cluster by improving coordination between business, academic, and government leaders was the idea behind the Massachusetts Life Sciences Collaborative in 2006. The collaborative is funded by Harvard University; the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; the Boston Foundation; and the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative and its John Adams Innovation Institute.
Windham-Bannister said she has met four times with the collaborative and its committees, with additional sessions scheduled.
“My goal is not to duplicate effort. It’s not to reinvent the wheel. My goal is to partner with the other organizations in Massachusetts that are focused on life sciences; learn from what they have already done, and explored, and know about the issues; and collaborate with them to see which pieces we should bite off and try to address.” she said. “What can the life-sciences center do that is not being done, or not being addressed well, or there are really not other funding sources available to support?”
The talent summit was held as part of a 15-month effort by UMass Donahue and MLSC to craft a statewide strategy for training students to fill the state’s growing number of new life-sciences jobs. The endproduct of that effort will be the Massachusetts Life Sciences Talent Initiative, a long-range workforce-development strategy set to be made public later this month.
The $250,000 Life Sciences Talent Initiative has examined federal and state labor data, toward a report expected to detail the range of occupations in the state’s life-sciences industry, and the skills required for those jobs; then project the demand for those jobs through 2015, and the supply of graduates to fill those positions.
Windham-Bannister said the study would be released “as soon as we can reach some agreement — we are putting the final touches on the executive summary for the report.”
The report will serve as a starting point for the center’s future workforce-development activity, she said.
“We can call for proposals for collaborative initiatives to address these issues. We can call for proposals to develop different kinds of curricula. We can call for proposals that would be joint initiatives between our vocational schools, community colleges, and major universities. These are ways which we can use our funds,” Windham-Bannister said.
“I don’t think we want to necessarily dictate to the market what the programs need to look like. I’m sure there are great ideas in the community about how these issues could be addressed. We need to be clear about the types of needs — the gaps that we would like to focus on and throw our resources behind. And then, I think, we can look to the life sciences community to come to us with good ideas and proposals for how to get those things done,” she added.
Calling the A-Team
The life-sciences center is also close to expanding its staff — headed by Windham-Bannister and chief of staff Melissa Walsh — by hiring its “A-Team” of up to 11 senior executives. The center expects later this fall to name appointees for a chief financial officer, a senior overseer of academic grant programs, an executive to oversee MLSC’s industry relations, and other roles.
Among them, Windham-Bannister told BRN, will be an executive skilled in measuring the economic impacts of the state life-sci effort. “It is important for us to be able to demonstrate quantitatively what the return is on the investments that we are making.”
“We are poised to make a few offers to senior members of the team. We are making great progress there, given that it was the summer and there were things we had to put in place before we could move forward,” such as creating positions, developing job descriptions for them, and soliciting applicants, Windham-Bannister said. “We will bring to the center individuals with a lot of experience in life sciences or in grants oversight, in the core business of the center.”
One person has accepted a position overseeing the center’s Research Matching Grant program. The life-sci center will not name the person, pending formal approval by its seven-member board of directors, expected at its next meeting Sept. 16.
MLSC plans to outsource its benefits administration, IT support, and payroll administration.
Staffing has been a point of controversy for the center since it was created in 2006 by then-Gov. Mitt Romney as part of a measure designed to stimulate the state’s economy following years of job losses.
Weeks before he left office, Romney named an aide in his Executive Office of Administration and Finance, Aaron D’Elia, as the center’s $125,000-a-year day-to-day leader. The hiring angered life-sci leaders, who cited D’Elia’s lack of life-sci industry experience, as well as fears that he would follow Romney’s policy of restricting funding for human embryonic stem cell research, a view D’Elia denied sharing in a BRN interview last year. D’Elia was forced to resign in a June 2007 shakeup.
Romney’s successor, current Gov. Deval Patrick, moved to restructure the life-sci center as part of his $1 billion, 10-year life-sciences initiative, formallytitled An Act Providing for the Investment in and Expansion of the Life Sciences Industry in the Commonwealth. Under the measure, signed into law June 16, the center’s board was expanded, from five members to the seven whose appointments were announced over the summer.
The law also set aside $299.5 million in earmarks allowing the state to fund infrastructure for a variety of projects. More than three-quarters of the earmarked money, around $236.4 million, will go to the UMass system for a variety of projects. An announcement on the UMass projects is expected within the next month.
In addition, the law requires the state to create five regional “Technology and Innovation Centers,” state life-sci outposts to consist of existing facilities, with a total $30 million available toward lab space build-out projects they identified.
“My initial thought is that we would like for them to also be convening bodies for members of the [18-member Life Sciences Advisory Board] in their regions to feed in or make us aware of emerging initiatives that warrant attention. We’d like to use those as touchdown spaces for our own staff to work a couple of days each month, so that we’re very visible around the state — not just orchestrated visits, but really there working, and getting to know what’s going on,” Windham-Banister told BRN. “As we get our own strategy clarified, we will then better understand what it is that we would like to rely on those centers to do.”
The advisory board, to be appointed by Patrick, will consist of 10 collaborative members, all five chancellors of UMass campuses, and three patient advocates.
Perhaps more importantly, the initiative established the center as the state’s vehicle for distributing much of the life-sci largesse. The measure caps the center’s administrative costs at $3.75 million a year for 10 years — part of the $25 million a year over 10 years that the agency is authorized to spend.
During the state’s current fiscal year, which began July 1, the life sciences center has awarded $7 million of $12 million in research and faculty grants announced last February. Applications for the other $5 million are being reviewed, and “we are hoping to announce those to our board for their approval at the [Oct. 14] meeting,” Windham-Bannister said.
Windham-Bannister said the center’s decisions on priorities will underpin future decisions on which additional funding programs it will pursue, and how much it will award. Another factor in the evolution of the funding programs, she said, will be advice from the center’s Scientific Advisory Board.
While the initiative gives the life-sci center leeway in creating and funding grant programs consistent with its aims, the measure also establishes several of those programs. They include:
- A $5 million Massachusetts Life Sciences Education Fund, created to award grants to vocational and technical schools for purchasing or leasing equipment to train students in life sciences research and technology, with approval by a majority of the life sciences center board.
- The Dr. Craig C. Mello Small Business Equity Investment Fund. Named for the Nobel laureate based at UMass Worcester, the fund awards up to $250,000 to small life sciences businesses with the goals of stimulating private investment and covering gaps in federal research funding. In return for the money, the life sciences center would take an equity position.
- The Dr. Judah Folkman Higher Education Grant Fund. Named for the pioneer cancer researcher who died Jan. 14 at age 74, the fund awards up to $15,000 a year in living expenses for graduate-level and doctoral students and post-doctoral fellows studying or employed at a college, university, independent research institution, or an academic medical center in Massachusetts. Awardees cannot have incomes more than 300 percent above the federal poverty level.
“We cannot be all things to all people. The worst mistake that we can make would be to try and fund too broadly at such minimal levels that we really have no impact,” Windham-Bannister said. “We need to be focused. There needs to be a set of priorities. There needs to be a strategic purpose. There needs to be a theme, if you will.”
That theme, she said, would not likely be reshaped by increasing life-sci economic competition from other states — from Texas’ cancer effort to California’s $3 billion for stem cell funding and Maryland’s $1.1 billion “BIO 2020” initiative. MLSC will continue its outreach to representatives of other states, with possible collaborations in mind.
“I think it’s a friendly competition in the sense that we all benefit,” Windham-Bannister said. “I think all boats are just going to rise with the tide.”