Turning Good Science into Good Jobs

So, just what does $100 million buy today?
Many business owners and economic development leaders are asking that question, following the announcement earlier this month that the state, through the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, has funneled $95 million in grants to the Life Sciences Laboratory at UMass Amherst and another $5.5 million to the Pioneer Valley Life Sciences Institute in Springfield, with the broad goal of leveraging that investment to spur economic development and jobs (see story, page 9).
In this case, $100 million would appear to buy opportunity — in many forms, but especially an opportunity to further diversify this region’s economy, something that desperately needs to be done — while bolstering a still-vital precision-manufacturing sector, making this region a much bigger part of this state’s rise to the top when it comes to generating business in the life sciences, and propelling the university to a higher level in terms of research and prestige.
Will $100 million buy all that? Probably not, but it will certainly generate some momentum that might make all those things possible.
That’s what state leaders, including Gov. Patrick, university administrators, and elected officials were saying at an elaborate press event on June 6 to announce the grants, and they may well be right. These investments — that’s the best word to describe what the state is doing — are designed to stimulate what Susan Windham-Bannister and others call “innovation-driven economic development,” which would be something new to this region, but also something actually quite old.
Indeed, in recent years, the main thrust of economic development, not just here but elsewhere, has been to attract large employers to vast expanses in industrial parks. We’ve had some success with that approach in the Pioneer Valley, but other regions have enjoyed much more.
Innovation-driven development is different. It starts with the development of materials, products, processes, and expertise, and uses all of the above to stimulate startup companies, bring opportunities to existing ventures, and draw companies from other areas who want to take advantage of all this.
We saw this happen with the Springfield Armory, which wasn’t exactly a startup operation (although, in some respects, it fits that description), but was the birthplace of a great deal of innovation, which eventually led to a number of businesses started by people who worked at the Armory, and, eventually, to the birth of a thriving precision-manufacturing sector. The same can also be said, in many respects, for the gunmaking industry that developed in Western Mass. and Connecticut, which was truly innovation-driven.
Fast-forward more than 200 years, and this region now has an opportunity for different kinds of innovation, from the development of personalized health-monitoring devices using nanotechnology, to discovery and application of new compounds to fight infection, to translating basic protein research into new therapeutic treatments for Alzheimer’s, cancer, and other infectious diseases.
These are the types of research-and-development opportunities that will be taking place at three research centers to be constructed and equipped through that $95 million grant to the university. Meanwhile, at PVLSI, the $5.5 million grant will support the development of a new Center of Innovation in Health Informatics and Technology, designed to spur progress in such areas as population health management and healthcare quality.
In Cambridge and Worcester, similar investments, both public and private, have led to the formation of dozens of companies and the creation of thousands of jobs in the broad life-sciences sector, and Windham-Bannister believes that model could be replicated in Western Mass.
Time will tell if she’s right and if this region can, indeed, translate good science into good business and good jobs, but this region has been handed what appears to be a golden opportunity.
The challenge now is to take full advantage of it.

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