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You’re a Good Man Charlie B

We can all heave a sigh of relief. With his recent announcement that he will extend Gov. Deval Patrick’s 10-year, $1 billion life sciences development package – by five years and $500 million – Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker has finally signaled, unequivocally, that he recognizes the importance of biotechnology and Massachusetts preeminent position within the industry.

Unfortunately, it took a while. Shortly after he took office, Gov. Baker indulged in some scary talk, through aides, about merging the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center with the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative and the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center. Talk about a mixed message.

There were also some nods to Republican orthodoxy that in a free market economy, the government shouldn’t be engaged in picking winners and losers (the federal government’s annual $4 billion subsidy to companies that drill for oil and gas notwithstanding). Baker suggested it was more important to think horizontally, across industries, than to focus vertically on individual sectors.

State government “can be a real partner to the innovators and entrepreneurs,” he said during a speech to life sciences and technology leaders at MIT in 2016. “But I do believe that for us to be successful, we have to stop being as turf-oriented as we have been.” That cleared up nothing and it was up to the governor’s spokesmen to reaffirm his commitment to life sciences – without providing any specifics.

Baker encouraged rumors that he would support the industry with little more than benign neglect when he failed to show up at the annual BIO convention in 2016, where Gov. Patrick had been a recruiter-in-chief and all-around cheerleader on an annual basis.

The uncertain future of the Mass. Life Sciences Center finally came into focus on June 20 when Baker formally asked for another $500 million from the Legislature to fund the Center. The “Life Sciences Initiative 2.0” will emphasize funding for job training and career development, as well as bringing more drug manufacturing to the state. Baker underscored his commitment to the biotech industry by finally making the trek to BIO in San Diego, delivering his proposal in person to the people it would most affect.

What prompted Gov. Baker to come around? Could it have been a visit to Kendall Square, where labs the size of breadboxes lease for nearly $100 a square foot? A glance at the soaring value of the S&P Biotech ETF? Or the fact that the greater Boston area now hosts the largest concentration of biotech and pharmaceutical companies in the world? Then again, the cynics among us may view it as just a calculation regarding his run for reelection next year. Shirley Leung, the business columnist for The Boston Globe, probably said it best: had Baker not extended the life sciences initiative, “It would have been like Bob Kraft not renewing Tom Brady’s contract.”

In any case, with the uncertainty removed, Massachusetts’s commitment to the biopharmaceutical industry confirms the Boston/Cambridge region’s position as the hub of the biotech industry. The continued support for basic research, job training, and career development provided by the Life Sciences Initiative 2.0 will help provide the already buoyant industry with ample products and human resources necessary to support the ever-growing crop of startups and spinoffs.

Blog article by: Howard Levine and Al Doig