One of the main issues of the Forum of the BioRegion was technology transfer in healthcare and science commercialization and what role the government should play in pooling innovation. As Former President and CEO of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, Susan W. Bannister (speaker at the forum) shared with us the experience of this 10-year, $1-billion initiative that was launched in 2008 by then-Governor of Massachusetts Deval Patrick.
Spoiler alert: Partnership between government and the private sector is key to creating a strong healthcare and life sciences ecosystem.
Firstly, the government cared about it. This was absolutely key because that is where all the money was coming from. The government was saying very publicly: we believe in these sectors and we are willing to take the risk. With economic support, it was quick. From 2008 to 2014, Massachusetts became a completely different place because once there is an initial investor (government) then private money follows.
Secondly, we were creating an environment in Massachusetts that made the state more innovation-friendly. So, when I talk about innovation, I’m talking about the transfer of science into use. To me, there is no innovation without use. It changes our behavior, the way we do things and the outcomes. We helped things get started and we were really playing the role of an accelerator.
Yes. Although we had public money, we used the word investment because when government talks about their money, it usually sounds like it is free money that the government gives with no responsibility.
We expected a return. We were not looking for a direct financial return to us as private investors but for a return to the state: jobs, taxes paid, a growing economy, buildings going up, other privately funded resource spaces, etc. This is what we were looking to create for the state. It is an expanded economy.
Yes, but not all the projects could get public money because when we started there was a severe economic downturn. We had to think about how we could attract additional money and we asked the organizations that received money from us if they could raise or find matching funds. It wasn’t always a requirement but we encouraged them to do that. From the beginning, we have been thinking of ways to attract one dollar for every dollar invested and this is where the public sector must partner.
My opinion is that government should partner. Innovation itself is a bottom-up process, someone sitting in a lab or at a dinner saying, “I have an idea. I think I can solve this problem.” This rarely comes from the top. What government can do is create an environment that supports that sort of thinking and the creation of the process. The government can encourage, partner, look for ways to make the process work better, but I don’t think it should guide.
Massachusetts has a high concentration of universities, research hospitals, skilled workers, entrepreneurs, mature companies and investors, and now these components work well individually and together. We have a vision of who we are as a life sciences community.
Every region needs a platform that provides collaboration. This is the process to create an ecosystem and enables your research community to determine its strengths. It also provides the culture that includes translational thinking and support for entrepreneurship. One of the things that we’ve funded most is places where entrepreneurs can gather. We pooled everyone together but what keeps them together is that they are seeing the advantages of working in a collaborative way.
What I would like for people to learn from Massachusetts is maybe not so much the specific programs but this framework for understanding what is missing or what is not, how strong it needs to be in terms of building innovation capacity. I think Catalonia should do exactly what it is doing now, which is looking at different models and then deciding what works here. The most important thing is to have a strategy.