Recently, members of our team sat down with Bob Coughlin to discuss the life science industry in Massachusetts. Read part two of our conversation which covered real estate, life science clusters, and location.
Q: You were the longtime CEO of MassBio, helping to shepherd this industry into what it’s become, and now you’re in the real estate industry, helping companies find the right space to advance their science. How do you approach this new role?
Coughlin: I specialize in life sciences. I’m a life science advisor. When I work with tenants, I bring them to the spot that will enable them to achieve their growth strategy in a timely and affordable fashion so that they have the best chance of solving an unmet medical need.
These people who do R&D can’t work from home. They go to the lab. The people who manufacture drugs don’t do it from home. They go to the bio manufacturing and processing facility. They can’t do this work in a garage. It must be a building that has adequate power, adequate ventilation, adequate backups. I mean, they could be a strain of science they’re working on that’s a hundred years old. They lose power and it dies forever. So, this isn’t your typical real estate, and to be successful you really need to understand your tenants and what they are trying to achieve.
They can’t do this work in a garage. It must be a building that has adequate power, adequate ventilation, adequate backups. I mean, they could be a strain of science they’re working on that’s a hundred years old. They lose power and it dies forever. So, this isn’t your typical real estate, and to be successful you really need to understand your tenants and what they are trying to achieve.
Q: Unlike in tech, the biotech industry tends to cluster together. How does a cluster like Kendall Square help the industry grow?
Coughlin: Why do other states build technology parks? They build them because they want to have an area where you put doctors, scientists, engineers, medical space, academic space all together. They want to put all these different ingredients that go into a wonderful life science ecosystem recipe together to get the “bump effect.”
That’s the idea that high concentration density forces collaboration. The more diverse the group, the more connected the group, the better chance you have of solving these complex problems.
So, these other states build technology or research parks, and Massachusetts doesn’t. Why? Because we already have one.
Mass Bio’s headquarters was right in the middle of Tech Square in Kendall Square. It’s the highest concentration of research and development employees in the world. And some people say, “Geez, why would you want to be so close to your competitors? Everyone’s going to steal from everyone.”
Well in Kendall Square there’s maybe 1,500 life science companies there, but a lot of those people almost feel like they all work for the same company. Because you go to lunch at Catalyst and you go to Area 4 and there’s a good chance you’re going to bump into two Nobel laureates grabbing your coffee.
This is Disney World for adult nerdy scientists. It’s the best place in the world. It’s magical.
Q: But now biotech has expanded well beyond Kendall Square.
Coughlin: These clusters tend to grow and as Kendall Square filled up, it moved out to Watertown. I’m in the Seaport right now – look at the millions of square feet of lab space we have here. The Seaport didn’t even exist ten years ago the way it does today. This stuff is happening fast. Look at Worcester. Worcester is a top 15 biotech cluster nationally on its own.
This isn’t about just Kendall Square, this is about everyone doing better and the same goes for every what’s going on in San Diego, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Maryland, North Carolina; this is all good stuff. This isn’t supposed to be a secret. We’re not hiding this, and it’s amazing to see what’s happening in Houston and Dallas and New York City and Long Island. There are developments across the country that are just making this industry better and better. We compete, but all boats rise with the tide and who ultimately benefits are the sick people of the world.
Q: Where else could you see this industry expanding in Massachusetts?
Coughlin: Something that’s really exciting about this post COVID world is that employees don’t want a long commute. Our public transportation isn’t where it needs to be. We all know that. I’m not going to throw rocks at it in this discussion, but it’s not where it needs to be. As you know, we have a big workforce housing dilemma as well in Massachusetts, but if you want to retain and recruit talent, it needs to be where the people live.
So, what I’m seeing and experiencing is that human resource officers in biotech companies are playing a much more integral role in site selection. And the reason they’re doing it is because they want to put the jobs closer to where people live and where people can afford to live. And these employees want that cliché live, work, play environment.
They want to be near their daycare, their drycleaner and to be able to go out and get craft beer and good coffee. They want to experience art, culture, diversity in cuisine, different types of food.
And this COVID change, now companies are more likely to be open-minded to go to Somerville, to go to Chelsea, to go to Watertown, to go to Newton. Moderna went down to Norwood for their manufacturing plant. Thermo Fisher Scientific has a plant out in Franklin.
It’s really attractive to the workforce to be able to live close to work and be able to afford it. Personally, I love when companies are going out to Central Mass and Worcester. A lot of people can live out there affordably.