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Funding Opportunities from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center – Interview with Angus McQuilken

Have you ever wondered why Massachusetts is a leader in life sciences, or how the region has come to be recognized as the global epicenter for research, start-ups and large industry? Talented students and innovators are attracted to the region thanks to our leading universities, but concerted policy and financial efforts have also helped develop Massachusetts’ innovation-driven economy. The Massachusetts Life Sciences Center (MLSC) is one important piece of the puzzle as a strategic $1 billion 10-year investment by the state to develop the local life sciences eco-system.

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I sat down with Angus McQuilken, the center’s VP of Communications and Marketing, to better understand the goals and diverse programs the MLSC supports. The state’s $1 billion investment is fueling projects pitched by almost anyone involved in life sciences, from physician-entrepreneurs to students to large life science company executives.

Angus McQuilken

First, can you describe the purpose and main objectives of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center?

Governor Patrick proposed the Life Sciences Initiative in 2007 at the Bio Convention, which was held here in Boston. The initiative was passed by the legislature and signed into law in June of 2008, and it’s a 10-year $1 billion investment initiative. The big picture goal was to provide a vehicle through which Massachusetts could emerge as the global leader in the field. Five years ago Massachusetts was viewed as one of the leading regions in the life sciences, but now I think it’s fair to say that we are the global leader.

“Our approach is to make investments that will allow Massachusetts to continue to emerge as the global leader in the field.”

The MLSC has three primary functions. Primarily we’re a funding agency – we accept applications, review them and award funding to support research, company formation and growth, workforce development and capital projects. We also serve as the state’s primary recruitment agency for companies from all over the world to talk about why Massachusetts is the right place to open a U.S. subsidiary or U.S. headquarters. Our third function is to be a convener – to bring groups together to innovate. One example of this is our Neurosciences Consortium which brings together some of the world’s largest biopharma companies to collaborate on preclinical neuroscience research in areas like Alzheimer’s, MS and Parkinson’s.

The industry sectors that we focus on in our investment program are biotech, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, diagnostics and bioinformatics. We invest with a strategy to identify and fill gaps in the translation of technology from bench to bedside. Within these sectors, we have four primary areas that we invest in. We invest in scientific research through a series of matching grant programs. We also invest in companies directly, including loan financing for early stage companies, and we administer the state’s $25 million/year tax incentive program for companies that are locating and expanding in Massachusetts. The third area is workforce development. We realize that talent is the number one reason why companies choose to come to Massachusetts and we want to build on that strength. That includes attracting candidates to the area for job opportunities, but also training students within our own educational system and internships to prepare them for jobs in the industry.

The fourth area of investment is actually construction projects. Half of our dollars, $500 million over the ten years, are dedicated to capital projects in the life sciences and to promote the creation of unique resources throughout the state. For example, we provided a $10 million grant to the Dana Farber Cancer Institute to promote the construction of a new molecular imaging facility. We also awarded a $5 million grant to the Joslin Diabetes Center to support the creation of a new translational center for the cure of diabetes. We look for innovative capital projects where our support will help create a unique resource that will also be available to industry.

The Neurosciences Consortium is really a unique model for industry-supported academic research. Why was neuroscience selected as the topic, and how does the program work?

Massachusetts is a leader in the neurosciences, but not enough progress is being made in the field. This was the first year of the program, and seven unique research projects were funded. The way the program works is that seven global biopharma companies who comprise the Consortium, which are AbbVie, Biogen Idec, EMD Serono, Janssen, Merck, Pfizer and Sunovion, contribute equally to the funding raise of $1.75 million. We then opened up for applications from researchers in the areas of Alzheimer’s, MS, Parkinson’s and pain – we received nearly 100 applications in the first round. Members of the Consortium then decided which projects to support, though the research is done at academic institutions. All of the participating companies will then have equal access to the results. This model has really provided an opportunity for traditional competitors to work together.

Is most of the focus for corporate investments on attracting larger companies to the area, or supporting early stage companies?

We do both actually. Our idea is that the initiative will be most successful if we invest broadly. We invest in early stage companies through our accelerator loan program. We’ve provided loans to 25 promising early-stage companies, totaling nearly $17 million. The loans are up to $1 million per company, and the program is run twice per year. The financing has allowed these companies to move forward in an environment where they may not have otherwise been able to secure the financing to be successful.

I’m curious about the loan program for early-stage companies. How are the technologies and proposals assessed, and who is on the board of directors?

To be successful, an applicant really needs to have both solid technology and a good business model. We do have defined deadlines for two rounds of open solicitation (the next application deadline is February 3, 2014). Then, we have several rounds of review. They’re first reviewed at the staff level to ensure basic eligibility. Next, they are sent to our peer review panel. We have over 200 peer reviewers, who are all volunteers. Applications are assigned to reviewers based on area of expertise, then are scored. The applications then go to our scientific advisory board, which is chaired by Dr. Harvey Lodish from MIT. The scientific advisory board assesses the reviewers’ comments and makes recommendations to the board of directors, which then decides what applications to fund.

We are a quasi-public agency, which means that while we’re funded by the state, we’re governed by a board of directors, which is appointed by the governor, but we’re not an agency within one of the Secretariats of State government. We have a greater level of independence in decision-making.

You mentioned that economic assessments of the programs as of now, the five-year mark, have been done. In what ways have the programs been successful, and how have the outcomes been measured?

Economists Barry Bluestone and Alan Clayton-Matthews of Northeastern University conducted an external assessment of the program, called Life Sciences Innovation as a Catalyst for Economic Development: The Role of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center. We asked them to look at what the return-on-investment has been for the state, and what they found is interesting. Life sciences are the fastest-growing industry in the state – faster than many other industries that are important aspects of our economy – faster than healthcare, faster than education. And they found that the life sciences are growing faster here than in any other state. The point where we overtook the competition was in 2008, the year that we started making investments through the Life Sciences Initiative.

I noticed that MLSC also has several programs focused on international collaboration. Can you describe the goal of these programs?

We recognize that no one country can address the challenges of life science innovation on their own. We created a series of international programs to facilitate collaboration between companies in Massachusetts and elsewhere around the world. The first program, the Massachusetts Israel Innovation Partnership (MIIP), came as a direct result of the governor’s trade mission to Israel three years ago. It’s a program that funds research and development initiatives between companies in Massachusetts and companies in Israel. The way the program works is as a matched-funding initiative between the MLSC and the Office of the Chief Scientist (OCS), the funding agency in Israel. Grants are approved and funds matched from both sides.

We’ve successfully done two rounds of the MIIP program, and with that model in mind, we recently launched the International Collaborative Industry Program (ICIP). ICIP applies the same model that we used in Israel to 4 different regions. The partner regions are the Alsace Region in France, the Quebec Province in Canada, the State of Victoria in Australia, and the Wallonia Region in Belgium. There’s a sister agency in each of those four regions that is our partner. As the program is very new we haven’t yet finished the first round of review, but we are looking for ways to fund projects that will catalyze innovation through collaboration.

We do have one other international program, which is more of a tool – the International Partnership Assistance Portal (IP-AP). The site allows companies from Massachusetts and internationally to post a profile about themselves and the areas they are looking for partners in. You can think of it as ‘online dating for life sciences companies’. Once you create a profile for your company, you can look at other profiles and try to find partners that will meet your objectives. We now have more than 300 companies that are in IP-AP from all over the world, and we’re using it as a tool to promote the types of collaboration that ICIP is seeking to create.

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Many thanks to Angus for taking the time to talk to MedTechBoston. When he’s not at his day job promoting the growth of life sciences in Massachusetts, you can find Angus on his bicycle.  Angus is an avid cycler and 5-year participant in the Pan-Mass Challenge, a multi-day biking event that raises money for cancer research.

Angus at finish 2013

Shannon Moore

Shannon Moore

    Shannon is an Associate Consultant at DRG Consulting, where she helps clients in the life sciences approach strategic problems. As a new-comer to Boston, she's very excited about all of the medical innovation happening in her neighborhood, and loves learning about the people and resources that make it so vibrant. Shannon also holds a PhD in Biomedical Engineering where she studied the biomechanics of bone regeneration. She can be reached at shannon@medtechboston.com.

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