Q&A With Massachusetts’ Billion-Dollar Woman: Susan Windham-Bannister. Part 1.

Xconomy Boston — 

Susan Windham-Bannister is pretty long as names go, so the staff simply calls her Dr. Sue. The moniker is short but her task is big. She’s the newly-hired president and CEO of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, the agency charged with administering Gov. Deval Patrick’s 10-year, $1 billion initiative to promote the industry in the state.

Windham-Bannister comes to the role with 35 years experience as a consultant in life sciences, most recently at Abt Bio-Pharma Solutions. Her past clients have included some big-name organizations, including Pfizer (NYSE: PFE), Genzyme (NASDAQ: GENZ) and Massachusetts General Hospital.

Now that the policy debate about the life sciences initiative is over and the $1 billion spending bill has become law, it’s time to ask about how this thing is going to work. Dr. Sue (her doctorate is in health policy and management from Brandeis University) agreed to answer my questions by e-mail. Here are excerpts from half the interview, with the rest to come tomorrow:

Xconomy: What is your goal for the first six months, or first year, to get this life sciences initiative off to a good start?

Susan Windham-Bannister: My major goals are two-fold:

• To make the key hires and develop the infrastructure needed to fully implement the Governor’s initiative as quickly as possible.
• To clarify, and communicate to the life sciences community what the Life Sciences Center’s top priorities are, where we will be “focusing” our investments (and why) and what the criteria are for becoming a “certified life sciences project/company” and applying for the Center’s resources.

I know that the life sciences community is waiting eagerly to hear what types of projects and initiatives the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center (MLSC) will be funding. So it is important that we clearly and quickly communicate this information. It is equally important that there is good transparency around our choice of priorities and our criteria for funding. To provide input for these important decisions, I am in a very “active listening” phase right now—meeting with representatives from diagnostics, medical device, pharmaceutical and biotech companies, academia, the medical centers and even real estate companies that specialize in life sciences to get their perspectives on “where” and “how” the MLSC can make a difference.

X: What’s been the biggest adjustment so far in joining the public sector, after spending the bulk of your career in industry?

SWB: I spent the bulk of my career in two consulting firms that provide advisory services to the life sciences industry—Abt Associates Inc. and its subsidiary, Abt Bio-Pharma Solutions. Abt Associates conducts a significant amount of business with the public sector and Abt Bio-Pharma Solutions works with industry as well as with NIH, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, etc. I therefore am very familiar with the work style and business culture required by the life sciences industry, but also with the transparency and oversight requirements that are required by public sector organizations. The fact that the MLSC is a “quasi” public-private entity means that we’ll have a foot in both worlds. That is very familiar territory for me.

My newest experience is working so closely with the media…..which, of course, I LOVE!!!! (GRIN)

X: Are there any common themes emerging from your meetings with biotech executives and academics, in terms of what they hope the state’s initiative can accomplish?

SWB: It is becoming clear that an important role that the MLSC can play is to use our dollars to promote collaboration—within and across the sectors of the life sciences community—and to encourage other partners to come to the table with investments. We are being encouraged to play the role of convener and facilitator, meaning that an important role for us is to bring various parties together to share ideas and problem-solve. And by the way, a friendly reminder not to forget that the life sciences community includes device, diagnostics and pharmaceutical companies—not just biotech!!

The most common “theme” that I am hearing from all areas of the life sciences community is the need for the MLSC to have a focus and set priorities. The Governor’s $1B initiative is unprecedented, and we all applaud his vision. At the same time, those of us in life sciences recognize that the average cost of bringing a single new drug, device, or assay to market easily can approach tens of millions of dollars!! Thus, a recurring theme from the life sciences community is that the MLSC should not try to do everything all at once, but take a thoughtful position on where to focus initially, and then evolve over time. There will be disappointments—because we can’t make everyone happy—but there also will be an appreciation of the fact that the Center is not its spreading investments so widely that we dilute their impact.

Remember that the Life Sciences Center also is a steward of public tax dollars. We owe the citizens of the Commonwealth a return on those dollars, in terms of economic development as well as new and better advancements in life sciences. An important part of our mission is to make investments that will create jobs across the state, by helping Massachusetts companies grow, supporting the development of our talented workforce, and attracting new companies, scientists and skilled workers to Massachusetts. But there are many ways in which we want to contribute to a better quality of life for the residents of the state. Since Massachusetts has been a pioneer in health care reform, wouldn’t it be great if some investments by the Life Sciences Center could ultimately help bring therapies and treatments to market that impact the quality of our health care as well as lowering the cost and increasing access to care for all of us?

So we want to make an impact with what we invest. That means selecting a few things, doing them well and getting leverage on our dollars.

Shortly after the new life sciences legislation was signed on June 16th, a delegation from Massachusetts was at the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) conference in San Diego to announce Massachusetts’ new initiative. I noticed that the slogan of another state that was participating at the conference is that they are “a state of minds.” I think that we can say that because of the new life sciences initiative in Massachusetts we live in “a state of hope.”

X: Have you been surprised by any feedback you’ve gotten so far? If so, why?

SWB: The most pleasant surprise has been the strong support among our constituencies of the fact that that the MLSC can’t do everything and can’t be all things to all members of the life sciences community. As someone with a background in strategy I came to the role of president and CEO with a strong leaning towards focus. I’ve been happy to hear that our stakeholders are fully supportive of this orientation!
Like most interviews, we start with the easy questions and then they get harder. We’ll continue with the second half of the interview on the site tomorrow.—Editors