Massachusetts biotech industry booms, but may face pipeline squeeze

The Massachusetts biotech industry is on pace for a banner year, having already raised $4.3 billion in venture capital in the first quarter of 2021 alone — that’s almost 75% of the total raised all of last year, according to a new report released by the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council.

“Coming into 2021, we’re building off the momentum we saw in 2020, with incredible excitement and interest in the life sciences,” said Kendalle Burlin O’Connell, president and COO of MassBio in an interview. “Massachusetts played an outsize role in the positive impact of research and development as it related to COVID activities, and (with) that excitement and interest, we’re continuing to see that momentum into 2021.”

In the last year, the state added nearly 5 million square feet of lab space, much of it outside the traditional hubs of Cambridge and Boston, the report states, with projections of quadrupling that figure by 2024.

All this lab space, of course, came with the need for new talent, and Massachusetts biopharma employment grew by 5.5% last year, to over 84,000 employees in the industry. By 2024, MassBio projects a need for up to 40,000 new employees to match demand.

Although the “core” of the state’s biotech industry is in R&D, with only slightly fewer employees in the sector behind frontrunner California, biomanufacturing has boomed, with Worcester County experiencing a 7.9% year-over-year growth in the field to almost 2,000 employees in 2020.

“In Worcester, it’s a little bit easier to access land … than right around Boston,” said Worcester Chief Development Officer Peter Dunn. “In order to accommodate the larger building sizes that are needed for biomanufacturing, you need more space … so we felt like that would be a great niche for us.”

Burlin O’Connell added that jobs in that area often don’t require an advanced degree and attract a more diverse talent pool, while offering average salaries of $160,000 in Massachusetts.

Worcester has bolstered its growth by creating talent pipeline partnerships with the eight local colleges and universities and by creating several biotech incubator spaces near the UMass medical campuses to nurture startups.

Burlin O’Connell said these small startups are some of the state’s greatest strengths, and the biggest collective funding recipients. “The life science cluster here in Massachusetts is known for those small companies working on really risky, innovative science,” she said. According to the report, 43% of venture capital investments in Massachusetts went to companies outside Cambridge.

Despite the rosy report, Burlin O’Connell said that talent will be “both our best opportunity and our biggest challenge.”

Initiatives at the local and state level to improve transportation, housing opportunities and childcare will determine the level of growth of the industry, the report states.

Chelmsford is one of the 87 communities MassBio rated as BioReady, or most hospitable to biotech companies, and achieved its coveted Platinum status earlier this year for its infrastructure, flexible zoning policies and other resources.

The town’s economic development director, Lisa Marrone, said this designation, as well as the town’s location and affordability, may have spurred some of the strong interest the town is seeing in its new business hub, the Crossroads at Route 129. The area is soon to be home to Thermo Fisher Scientific and Triton Systems.

Marrone has worked to develop partnerships between the biotech industry and the two schools in the area, UMass Lowell and Middlesex Community College, to share lab space and equipment and create a more steady pipeline of talent to local industry. She also helps the biotech companies to connect and collaborate with each other.

“I want Chelmsford to be known as a place that is just open for communication meetings, discussions and interest to try to see how projects can happen here,” she said.

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