The sheer scale of Boston’s life sciences sector is truly eye-opening

26 Sep 2018

George Washington statue, Boston. Image: Jorge Salcedo/Shutterstock

The statistics behind Boston’s life sciences sector are truly eye-opening, securing the city’s place as a powerhouse of innovation.

Health Sciences Week logo

As we recently saw, the city of Boston and the Greater Boston area are churning out highly skilled graduates like there’s no tomorrow, and a significant number of them are feeding into the neighbouring life sciences companies.

Over the course of its history, Boston has spawned some of the greatest medical breakthroughs of our time, including the first successful cardiac procedure in 1938, the first organ transplant in 1954 and the first isolation of a hereditary cancer gene in 1986.

High-speed corridor

Much of the activity in Boston’s life sciences sector today takes place along the ‘Life Sciences Corridor’ travelling from Somerville through Cambridge, Boston, Quincy and finishing up around Braintree.

In this space alone, there are more than 730 companies within the life sciences industry.

The total Boston area, meanwhile, employs more than 12,000 people in the sector and the state of Massachusetts has more employment in biotechnology R&D than any other US state, with close to 28,000 people. This has resulted in 7pc of the state’s GDP being dedicated to life sciences R&D, with companies based there contributing to more than 11pc of US drug development.

The newcomers

The figures for this year continue to raise eyebrows when looking at a recently published industry report, which showed that in less than a decade, venture capital funding for life sciences in Massachusetts went from more than $1bn to $3.6bn. Of that figure, 62pc of all biotech venture investment ($1.8bn) was funnelled into the relatively small confines of Cambridge, with Boston itself accounting for $320m.

2018 is being talked about as a record year for biotech IPOs, led by Cambridge-based Rubius Therapeutics, which raised $277m this summer. This was one of 15 biotech companies that went public so far this year, raising almost $1.7bn, with expectations that at least another three or four are to be announced by the end of this year.

Jason Gardner, founder of Magenta Therapeutics (which went public in July), summed up the market’s thoughts in saying that the “Boston-Cambridge ecosystem is tremendous”.

In terms of where much of Boston’s R&D is going, oncology dominates much of the sector’s attention, accounting for 35pc of all research, followed by neurology (11pc), infections (9pc) and immunology (6pc).

The big names

But it isn’t all about the up-and-comers, with most of the biggest life sciences companies in the world based there.

The largest employer by far is the soon-to-be combined workforces of Shire and Takeda, totalling more than 5,000. Earlier this year, the latter purchased Shire for $62bn in what is one of the largest deals ever in the pharmaceutical industry, but the finalisation of the deal could be a few months away yet.

In the meantime, Shire has been busy in the Boston area, deploying more than 3,000 of its workers from a number of sites across Massachusetts to its two main campuses in Cambridge and Lexington. Among its latest contributions to the world of biopharma was the approval of an impressive new drug called Takhzyro to treat a rare and life-threatening genetic disease called hereditary angioedema.

The second-largest employer also found in the heart of Boston is Irish-based, French-owned Sanofi, with 4,800 employees. The past two years have been something of a mixed bag for the company, though, having earlier this year announced it was to lay off 130 people at its manufacturing facility in Boston. This followed its decision to purchase another Massachusetts-based biotech company called Bioverativ for approximately $11.6bn.

A shiny new campus

Another company with an Irish base is Merck (known as MSD in Ireland), which employs 450 people within the Boston-Cambridge life sciences cluster. Focused on immunology, oncology, diabetes and neuroscience, the research centre’s lead, Daria Hazuda, said of the region: “You need to have people exploring new areas of biology to uncover new opportunities, which is what we hope to do in Cambridge.”

The only thing that remains to be seen is what the future holds for the life sciences sector in the Greater Boston area. Certainly, much is being pinned on the construction of a new $1bn, 1.5m sq m life sciences and technology campus capable of holding up to 7,000 staff. Going under the name Albany Green, half of the campus is expected to be completed by early 2020.

Bill Keravuori, managing partner of the Abbey Group, described the project as “an ambitious transformative development for an underutilised fringe area of the neighbourhood that will become a dynamic, thriving contributor to our neighbourhood and our city”.

Barring another economic disaster comparable to 2008, it’s hard to imagine that Boston and the wider state of Massachusetts could not one day surpass California as the biggest biotech leader in the US, if not the world.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic