Mass Life Sciences Center Attracts J&J Matching Funds, Awards $3.7M in Industry-Academic Grants

It’s a big day for the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, the quasi-public agency that manages the state’s plan to invest $1 billion in its life sciences industry over the next 10 years. New Jersey-based medical products giant Johnson & Johnson (NYSE:JNJ) has become the first company to join the agency’s new Corporate Consortium intended to match state dollars with private-sector funds to support life sciences startups and researchers in the Bay State, the agency says.

Separately, the agency announced $3.7 million in grants to fund collaborative research between scientists and companies in the commonwealth. (Read on for details.)

Johnson & Johnson’s Corporate Office of Science and Technology is chipping in $500,000 to match agency funding awards over the next two years—not a huge sum of money for the multibillion-dollar company, but the contribution attaches a major brand in the life sciences industry to the new consortium. Also, the Life Sciences Center hopes that more industry players will follow J&J’s example.

“We are just incredibly excited,” Susan Windham-Bannister, CEO of the center, told me today. “We’re really hoping that [J&J] will be a charter member of a larger fund.”

Windham-Bannister says that her agency will use the J&J money to enhance the agency’s new Life Sciences Accelerator fund and other funding programs. The Accelerator fund aims to provide seed money to life sciences startups in form of equity investments, grants, or loans. She says those funds could help startups clear hurdles to getting seed-stage funding, while reducing the risk for traditional investors such as venture firms in backing the young companies.

For its contribution, J&J gets to sit in on meetings of the Life Sciences Center’s investment sub-committee that reviews funding requests from startups and researchers. But the company won’t have voting rights on the sub-committee and won’t gain first rights of refusal or equity stakes, Windham-Bannister says.

The J&J funds give a small boost to the Life Science Center’s current budget. The state Legislature cut $10 million from the center’s $25 million annual budget this fall as part of a broader effort to reduce state spending. Windham-Bannister says that $12 million of the center’s remaining $15 million is slated to support grant programs for workforce development and life sciences research, as well as the new fund to seed startups, among other efforts.

Authorized in a bill passed in June, the 10-year plan to invest $1 billion in the state’s life sciences sector provides $500 million to fund infrastructure to support the industry, $250 million in science grants and small business assistance, and another $250 million in tax credits.

Here is a list of the three-year collaborative research grants awarded today:

$598,788 — The grant supports a joint effort between researchers at University of Massachusetts, Lowell, and Natick, MA-based medical devices giant Boston Scientific (NYSE:BSX) aimed at developing novel coatings for pacemaker and defibrillator leads.

$750,000 — Judy Lieberman, a professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, is working with the Immune Disease Institute in Boston and Epic Therapeutics of Norwood, MA, on a study of the antiviral effects of microparticles combined with small interfering RNA. The research may lead to development of a topical treatment to prevent sexual transmission of herpes simplex virus (HSV-2).

$750,000 — David Weitz, a physics professor at Harvard University, is collaborating with Raindance Technologies, a Lexington, MA-based developer of genetic research tools, to develop florescence-activated cell sorter.

$189,300 — Andrew Luster, a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, will work with Cambridge, MA-based biotech firm Idera Pharmaceuticals (NADAQ:IDRA) to develop new treatments for autoimmune diseases like Lupus.

$750,000 — Richard Lee, a researcher at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, and Parth Patwari of Harvard Medical School plan to work with Biomeasure, based in Milford, MA, on a study of a heparin-binding protein that could boost cartilage regeneration for patients with osteoarthritis or those who suffer traumatic injuries.

$750,000 — UMass Medical School researchers Michael Czech and Gary Ostroff plan to collaborate with RXi Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ:RXII), based in Worcester, MA, on the development of orally delivered RNA-interference drugs. Czech is listed on the company’s Web site as a founder of RXi and a member of the scientific advisory board.

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