Following his nomination by Governor Charlie Baker and unanimous approval by the Mass Life Sciences Center’s Board of Directors, Travis McCready will begin his new job as CEO of the Mass Life Sciences Center (MLSC) this month. McCready will be transitioning from The Boston Foundation (TBF), one of the oldest and most respected community foundations in the United States, where he has been the Vice President of Programs since 2013. He has also held positions as the Executive Director of the Kendall Square Association, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting the area now recognized as the center of the global biotech industry, and as COO of the Massachusetts Convention Center Authority in addition to helping former Governor Deval Patrick orchestrate the announcement of his billion dollar life sciences initiative at the 2007 International BIO Convention.
We sat down with McCready in his office at The Boston Foundation to discuss his transition, the link between philanthropy and innovation, his vision for the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center and other topics.
You are coming from one of the most prominent organizations in the country with regards to philanthropy. In your transition from TBF to MLSC, I would assume there is a connection?
I would characterize part of that connection being about the fact that, at the end of the day, a lot of what the MLSC does is create and organize programs for the distribution of funds that will assist scientists and entrepreneurs to grow and fund research within the Commonwealth. It’s in many respects a function that, programs that are designed to help social entrepreneurs provide extraordinary social services and other interventions that improve the human condition. So in that regard some of our core functionality, although targeted through different types of organizations, is very similar.
I also found that what many people pick up on as an opportunity in the life sciences industry is, “How are we going to fund the research?” FDA funding, venture capital, private equity, crowd funding–all of that at the end of the day is about the core philosophical issue of how are we going to choose to fund R&D as a society? One startup organization, Benefunder, is introducing philanthropy and impact investing into this conversation certainly in a very targeted layered basis, potentially funding research from one state to go the next. Essentially what they do is they form licensing relationships with universities to allow individual researchers to host their research in a kickstarter type of format and allows individual investors to invest in the individual research.
Shaking up the academia model too.
Precisely. It’s not the silver bullet but it’s an evolution which I find very interesting.
What about your personal journey? You could be doing anything–do you have a connection to life sciences?
I think many of us have personal connections to this industry. One is being a geek for years and being a science nerd that never took up the science nerd challenge. More immediately, what pushed me over the edge on a personal note is a young man, a stepson of a dear friend of mine, that has Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. I thought about that quite a bit. All of the interventions that we can create and fund in The Boston Foundation but I can’t do a thing about a cancer or an oncological problem. With the leadership of Paul Grogan and TBF we are exceedingly well served from a civic perspective, but this was an opportunity to lead and engage the life sciences with the same mission.
There’s a lot of overlap there. What I think is interesting is that for the patients like those who have lymphoma this funding of innovation really represents hope. We have the type of ecosystem where you don’t need to go far to see innovation happening right before our eyes. On that note. What is our biggest opportunity as a life science ecosystem?
I was reading an issue of The Economist. In the quarterly technology insert, there was a section about the life sciences, all the advances being made in delivery systems, and each and every one of the advances was basically right across the street in Cambridge, LMA, Harvard Medical School, etc. That’s our bread and butter. Our ability to attract and continue to advance every aspect of life sciences R&D and our ability to continue to attract the best and brightest on this endeavor continues to be our strongest identity.
I would really love to dig in and do a well due diligence of every product, medical device, or part of a medical device that’s been created here in Mass. We can be proud as a state of the kind of environment we are doing.
I’m very deliberate about not sequestering the activity to Cambridge and Boston. This is a Massachusetts thing. I think part of the challenge is our cost structure in Massachusetts makes it such that we have to be very careful about the value proposition.
You see a lot of people leave for a variety of reasons.
There will always be a degree of osmosis. You see this all the time in higher ed. But I do think constantly stress testing our cost structure to make sure the value proposition remains intact is perhaps our biggest challenge.
It’s a special place but it could unravel fast if we aren’t careful. Everyone wants to eat our lunch.
Everyone wants to eat our lunch and there are so many moving pieces to this equation. I think we have to be vigilant in ensuring both ends of the spectrum–with the R&D in upstarts as well as the large companies–continue to find value in Massachusetts.
In terms of the next year, looking forward, what do you think should be achieved, and what do you want to achieve?
When I get into the role and poke around, I’ll have a more precise answer, but immediately one thing that has been very clear is having to take the time to very clearly, very directly express to the industry that the Center is here to stay. Period end of sentence.
The second thing I’d like to accomplish is sticking to our knitting. The center has been successful at supporting upstarts and supporting biotech entrepreneurs, medtech entrepreneurs, supporting larger companies seeking to choose Massachusetts. I think we need to stick to that knitting and ensure that approach also starts to benefit communities besides the big three. Remove Cambridge and Boston from the equation and any of these cities and towns with activity would be significant. Burlington, Lowell, etc. all of these are great communities and I look forward to continuing to support their.
Lastly, the significance of mentors and the people who have helped you. There are some unknown unknowns in life and you can get great benefit from both giving and receiving mentorship. Is there somebody you would identify as being a mentor?
There’s one gentleman at Novartis named Jeff Lockwood. He has been a friend for a few years now, and I really deeply appreciate his friendship and his guidance and the role he has played in helping me to think through stuff. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Paul Grogan as well as Jim Rooney, who is now the head of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce. In the 15 years I have lived here, these guys have been great, on a personal and professional level. I deeply appreciate their fellowship. There is also a group of younger African American professional men with whom I get together on a monthly basis. This group of us, we support each other in a way that frankly I’ve never had this kind of support among my peer group ever in my career. We talk about and challenge each other and I find that a source of strength and direction.
In closing, what kind of advice would you give people who want to get involved in life sciences?
We have a number of programs that can be found on our website, but the most important thing to realize for somebody with no experience is that we believe at the MLSC that people should have a base level knowledge about the life sciences industry. There are a number of ways that you can start to get engaged in seeking that base level understanding. The industry is so incredibly diverse.
Robert Schultz has an MBA in Information Systems from University of Massachusetts-Boston and a BS in International Business from Northeastern University, where he served as Business Manager for the university’s largest student publication, The Northeastern News. Schultz is an experienced healthcare technology startup enthusiast who was involved with the patient monitoring company Aware Engineering through the MassBio MassCONNECT program.
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