Helicos Looking to Grow in Bay State, Thanks to Gov. Patrick’s Life Sciences Initiative

Xconomy Boston — 

If things break right for Helicos Biosciences, president Steve Lombardi will have to make a big decision about growth. Specifically, where to build a manufacturing plant for hundreds of highly skilled people making its genetic analysis machines?

To hear Lombardi tell the story, no decision has been made, but he’s leaning toward doing it in Massachusetts. Why? He says it’s because the state legislature passed Gov. Deval Patrick’s 10-year, $1 billion life sciences initiative last month. Some money in there for workforce training should help his company recruit a steady stream of folks with bachelor’s and master’s degrees with skills to do the manufacturing work, not far away from its R&D headquarters at Cambridge’s Kendall Square.

“If you go to Silicon Valley and look around, it is littered with large amounts of manufacturing in and among the education, research, and product development community,” Lombardi says. “It’s the combination of them all together that made the entity of Silicon Valley happen.”

He didn’t want to say manufacturing is a weak spot in the Bay State, but he did add, “What’s intriguing about the governor’s plan is it hits this idea dead-on. It recognizes there are places beyond Harvard, MIT, and BU that can put out a lot of smart people that aren’t going to win the Nobels, but are looking to make a career in life sciences.”

Lombardi is speaking a bit here from personal experience. He’s a native of Everett, MA, and has a bachelor’s degree in biology from Merrimack College, a small Catholic university in North Andover, MA. After he graduated, he worked a year locally, and moved to North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park for a better opportunity. He went on to get 25 years’ experience in biotech, mainly at a couple of California-based heavyweights in scientific instruments, Applied Biosystems (NYSE: ABI) and Affymetrix (NASDAQ: AFFX).

After he turned 50, he and wife became empty-nesters, and they decided to come back to Massachusetts in June 2006 for the job with Helicos (NASDAQ: HLCS). “We asked ourselves, what can we do to have fun and take a flier?” he says.

He was attracted back to Massachusetts, he says, because of the dynamism of research and development in the Cambridge area, supported by the National Institutes of Health, anchor biotech companies like Biogen Idec (NASDAQ: BIIB) and Genzyme (NASDAQ: GENZ), and drugmakers with research centers, like Novartis (NYSE: NVS).

“This is the place to be. About 10 percent of the market for the tools we make is within about five square miles,” he says.

Helicos currently has more than 100 employees, mostly in R&D. The company would prefer to keep commercial manufacturing close by for the sake of smooth communication and location near its vendors, all while finding a place with lower rent than Cambridge. Like lots of executives, Lombardi gets wooed regularly by economic development headhunters from around the world who lust for some of those high-wage manufacturing jobs. The state’s passage of the bill came at an opportune time, because the company is discussing the manufacturing location decision “as we speak.”

“We want to stay in the state with manufacturing, but we don’t have to,” he says. “It’s partly a financial decision, but it isn’t just about the numbers. Workforce is so important.”