LaBiotech Tour, a project profiling international biotech communities, premiered its Boston-based documentary on September 11, 2014 at Boston University and LabCentral in Cambridge. The film explored Boston’s longstanding prominence in biomedical innovation through the eyes of 15 different biotech startups in the area.
The LaBiotech Tour is an offshoot project of the LaBiotech websites, a centralized resource for biotech news that started in France and later expanded to all of Europe. The websites’ co-founders Philip Hemme and Joachim Eeckhout produced the first LaBiotech Tour film to profile France’s biotechnology industry in 2013. When Hemme moved to Boston, he partnered with Michael Snyder, a biomedical engineering student at Boston University, to create the project’s second film in Boston.
Long recognized as a unique hub for biomedical innovation, the Boston area was an obvious choice for LaBiotech Tour’s next stop. The movie gives viewers a sense of the “biotech ecosystem” in Boston—the various interacting factors that define the local biotech community.
As part of this ecosystem, the film explored why so many biotech companies start in Boston. “People understand the real importance of biotech here, including the government. We have great hospitals that are bringing in the most NIH funding and academic institutions that bring in the best and most ambitious minds,” Snyder said. “You have a big melting pot of really smart, driven people.” Snyder also cited “talented” employees as one of the factors in the success of so many biotech companies in the area.
Indeed, the innovation and creativity of local scientific minds is on full display as the film profiles a diverse group of individual biotech companies—BlueBird Bio, Blueprint Medicines, Constellation, Eleven Biotherapeutics, Enzymatics, Flagship Ventures, Foundation Medicine, Infinity Pharmaceuticals, Lab Central, MassBio, Moderna, Pronutria, Sample6, SQZ Biotech, and Vaxess Technologies were all featured in the film.
These companies are on the cutting edge of biotechnology, translating recent advances in the lab into patient care. Flagship Ventures recently invested in CRISPR/Cas9 technology through the company Editas, hoping to treat a broad range of diseases through genome engineering. The CRISPR/Cas9 system was pioneered by J.Zhang and George Churchat at the Broad Institute in Cambridge as a way to specifically alter DNA sequences and has the potential to correct disease mutations in human patients. BlueBird Bio is harnessing the power of gene therapy—where a missing or mutated gene is inserted into patient cells using a viral vector—to treat severe genetic diseases like childhood cerebral adrenoleukodystrophy and sickle cell disease.
Some companies in the film took a less traditional approach to biotechnology. Pronutria, for example, created an expansive protein library by analyzing the composition of common foods. They are now using some of these identified proteins to treat conditions such as muscle loss and metabolic disorders. “Pronutria is really interesting because of their concept of bringing natural ingredients from our daily diets into a therapeutic light instead of creating synthetic molecules [for treatment],” said Snyder.
In addition to profiling the scientific diversity of the companies, the film highlighted the international diversity of Boston’s scientific community. Snyder acknowledged this diversity as one of the unique assets to Boston’s biotech ecosystem, stating that this environment “brings together who have been educated in different parts of the world with different approaches to education. These people approach research in different ways and have been trained in different ways.”
Many of these startups faced similar initial challenges, though. “As a scientist, it’s stressful to be put into a position where you’re creating a startup and suddenly have to sell yourself,” Snyder said. “The idea of a business model doesn’t exist in academia.” Yet the unique environment for biotech companies in Boston has allowed companies to more easily address these problems. “You can literally walk down the street and talk to someone in another company who has had similar problems,” said Snyder.
All of these factors work in concert to create the thriving biotech community in Boston today. You can watch the LaBiotech Tour Boston film on the LaBiotech website: http://labiotechtour.com/boston/.
Lea is a PhD student at MIT studying molecular and cellular neuroscience. She is interested in translational disease research and is currently examining the role of neuronal identity in Huntington's Disease. Lea graduated from Harvard with an AB in neurobiology and has interned with biotech startups in neuropharmacology and biomedical engineering.
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