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Melissa Walsh

Melissa Walsh, Chief Operating Officer, Massachusetts Life Sciences Center

She is in charge of managing strategic public policies and governmental and international relations at the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, which was created with the aim of promoting one of the top life sciences clusters in the world. An important part of Melissa Walsh’s work deals with facilitating cooperation among stakeholders from academia, government and industry in order to ensure the impact of research and industry. She is a lawyer and a member of organizations like Boston Cares and the National Organization for Women.

American Melissa Walsh spent one month, from mid-September to mid-October, in Catalonia on an Eisenhower Fellowship, before visiting Madrid and Ireland. The aim of her visit, coordinated by Biocat and further supported by the TICSalut Foundation and the Catalan Agency for Health Information, Assessment and Quality (CAHTA), was to explore the economic landscape in our country, exchange experiences, and analyze the challenges and opportunities in our life sciences sectors in order to identify new ways to foster participation of Catalan companies and institutions in programs offered by the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center.

The Chief Operating Officer of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center got a first-hand look at some thirty institutions, research bodies and companies from the sector in Catalonia, including the Department of Health (Government of Catalonia), ACC1Ó, the Barcelona Science Park, the Barcelona Biomedical Research Park, the Parc Taulí, the UAB Research Park, the Institute for Bioengineering of Catalonia, the Barcelona Hospital Clínic and the Institut Guttmann.

You’ve spent four weeks in Barcelona on an Eisenhower Fellowship for American executives. What fieldwork did this grant allow you to carry out?  And, I was curious, why did you choose Barcelona?

This year the USA Eisenhower Fellowship Program sent 11 USA fellows to different places in the world and I’m actually the only person who chose Catalonia. I think that there are a lot of things that are happening here that are very similar to some of the experiences we are having and have had in Massachusetts. There’s a lot of development that’s happening in Catalonia, and Barcelona in particular, that is very similar to the way we are looking to support our cluster in Massachusetts. The aim of my visit was to come here and to learn about the landscape: who the critical organizations are here, how the development of the life sciences sectors are being supported by both the government and the private sector and academia, but also to certainly listen for opportunities for us to collaborate in those areas.

So you’re going to Madrid as well?

To be honest with you, when I had initially drafted my application for the fellowship, I had only contemplated spending time in Catalonia but I thought it was important for me to also get to Madrid to compare what I see there, what I hear there. There’s a strong cluster there as well that I’d like to learn more about. I got an invitation to meet with the US Ambassador to Spain, so I’ll be seeing him tomorrow in Madrid. I’m excited to share with him the stories of all the amazing things in Catalonia that I’ve learned.

Once you return to the United States, how will you maintain contact with Catalonia?

I think that keeping in touch is critical and one way I’d like to do that is to host some of our colleagues from Catalonia in Massachusetts soon. A good way that we can continue to work together to foster growth in the respective regions is making connections. A lot of the people I’ve spoken to here are very interested in collaborating, whether it be by finding partners to do collaborative research work, or identifying ways to enter the United States market, or participating in joint research and development projects. There are a lot of strengths in Massachusetts that meet some of the competences in Catalonia and I am committed to working with my colleagues back home to draw those connections where they’re appropriate. I think that’s where a lot of the opportunity can come. I also think it’s important to note that there are several programs that the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center already has available that are open to international applicants and I’m very focused on making sure that those programs are made available and made known to prospective applicants here.

What kind of programs?

A good example is our Accelerator Loan Program, which is open to early-stage companies. It’s usually a loan of about $750,000, meant to support early-stage companies that are moving towards commercialization of their product or technology. I know there is a lot of good emerging Intellectual Property in Catalonia that has commercial potential, where the company is looking to enter the US market but just doesn’t know exactly how. Often times, we’ve seen that the program has enabled a company to progress in a way that makes them very attractive to other financiers, venture capitalists and other private funders.

Do you have any similar successful programs?

Our cooperative research matching grant is an excellent example of our supporting research that’s being done in an academic institution - but where the researcher has an identified industry partner to match our investment.  Something we have been thinking about at the Center is whether, when we run the next round of that program, we could solicit applicants whose industry partner is from outside of the US, like a Catalonian company who’s looking to support or commission research.  We haven't done that yet but we love to innovate in new ways that support economic development while advancing scientific discovery!

There are other workforce development programs that we provide as well.  If a company was looking to set up even a small operation in Massachusetts to expand its US presence, we have an internship program that has been an important way for us to support the needs of companies that don’t have the resources to interview or hire a full workforce yet. This program also is open to international students that are going to school in Massachusetts. I know that there are lots of Catalonian students and Spanish students that are going to some of Massachusetts’ fine academic institutions and this program is a good way for them to get some good experience while also earning some money.

What international collaboration experiences have you had with other countries?

A really good example of an international program that we’ve created at the Life Sciences Center was just launched a couple of days before I left for Catalonia. The Massachusetts-Israel Innovation Partnership is a joint call that enables both regions to support joint R&D collaborations.

Do you think you could do something similar between Catalonia and Massachusetts?

I’ve identified some very committed people in Catalonia that are willing to get that information out to their respective networks. We could look into developing something similar or different, depending on where the significant gaps are. I have started to plant some seeds for people here to start thinking about what that would look like, with an eye towards public/private partnering. I know, for example, that there’s a significant desire to expand the number of research relationships between the two regions. There’s some amazing research happening both in Massachusetts and in Catalonia. So I would be thrilled to identify ways that we could somehow jointly support that research in a way that provides mutual benefit to the respective regions. 

What has been your impression of our life sciences sector?

I think that there is a lot of promise here. I think that there is an incredibly talented workforce that in my brief time here has identified itself as the key to surviving this economic crisis, which is another parallel to Massachusetts. There are areas of opportunity where there could be significant growth if, for example, academic organizations and industry worked more closely together than most are currently.  I also see tremendous tech-transfer potential here that is very new and not yet fully developed. To me, that’s very exciting because tapping into technology with commercial promise can mean great things for economic turnaround and also for patients. Massachusetts once struggled with this and now has great strengths around getting products to the market, so I think we may have some good lessons to share in that regard. Likewise, I think that there is a significant opportunity to serve as the gateway to the US market for some of the bourgeoning life sciences companies in Catalonia looking to expand their presence abroad.

How many companies did you visit?

I’ve met with dozens of innovators in healthcare and provider organizations, companies, incubators and trade associations, as well as government leaders. So I really spent time in each of the academic, industrial and government sectors.

So you have a good overall view.

Exactly. As I mentioned, the economic crisis that we all face is forcing us to think more globally but also to recognize that no one sector has the ability to get us out of this. We need to cooperate. That’s where I think that any solutions are going to require collaboration among academic organizations, industry and government. That’s the model that we are focusing on very strongly in Massachusetts. It’s working and I see examples of that happening here. I think there are real prospects for Catalonia and Massachusetts to share best practices and explore creative ways to leverage each other’s resources and competencies in ways that promote the science and business of our respective regions. No one sector or region can turn this financial crisis around alone; we just don’t have the resources.

And here there are some sectors just starting out now, so…

Back to your question about my observations… The thing that I learned and observed here that I was the most surprised about was how new the infrastructure is, both the physical infrastructure as well as the activities that are happening within that infrastructure. It’s amazing what the region has accomplished in even the last five years.  I’m excited to see what will develop here in the next five!

There’s a lot of potential.

There’s a lot of potential and I think that, with the right catalyzing relationships, resources and knowledge, the future holds great things for Catalonia. I would love for Massachusetts and Catalonia to help accelerate each other’s economic growth and share in each other’s successes. 

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