Susan Windham-Bannister on the State of the State’s $1B Life Sciences Initiative, Part I

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$500,000 to the program. (Read on for Windham-Bannister’s answer about her expectations of Sanofi if the drugmaker follows through with its reported plans to acquire Genzyme, the state’s largest biotech company.)

In recap, the state’s $1 billion life sciences initiative consists of three main funding areas: $500 million for capital projects, $250 million in tax incentives, and $250 million for its investment fund. The latter bucket, the investment fund, relies on an annual appropriation from the state budget. The governor and the state legislature, facing major budget deficits, have knocked down the proposed $25 million annual investment fund to $15 million and $10 million in fiscal years 2009 and 2010, respectively.

When I sat down with Windham-Bannister last week, we talked about a range of important topics in the state’s life sciences industry. Hint: Carl Icahn, Genzyme, and other major players came up in our conversation several times. The following are excerpts from our conversation. (Look for Part II of this conversation, in which Windham-Bannister talks about what Ted Kennedy’s death and other major happenings in the political arena mean for the future of the life sciences sector in Massachusetts.)

Xconomy: If the reports are true, Sanofi-Aventis plans to buy Genzyme, the state’s largest biotech company, and might have to make job cuts to make the economics of the deal work out. What would you like to see happen if the Sanofi-Genzyme deal goes through?

Windham-Bannister: Obviously, I would not like to see it cost the state many jobs. My optimistic perspective is that Sanofi-Aventis has already been demonstrating in very active ways its strong commitment to expanding its presence in Massachusetts. So we’ve seen, and they have announced, that they are moving their oncology group here and other parts or operating units here in the state. They have joined our consortium program. It’s pretty clear to us that Sanofi-Aventis recognizes the value of being here, so I would like to think if this coming together of the two companies occurs, that they will find many ways to absorb the talent from Genzyme. Sanofi is giving us very strong signals that they want to expand their presence here.

X: You’ve probably been asked this before, but will $1 billion over 10 years be enough to help the state maintain and even grow its reputation as a leading center for life sciences?

W-B: I’ll put it like this. This is how I used to talk about it when I first took this job and people called me the billion-dollar CEO. A billion dollars is about what it takes to bring a pharmacologic, and certainly a biologic, to market. In many cases, and let’s talk about the economics for a minute, some companies do have the incentive to bring a product to market if they don’t think they will be able to generate at least $1 billion in revenue from that product. It’s a great commitment, a great recognition of this cluster. It is certainly enough money for us to seed, accelerate, and to attract other investments. It is absolutely quite a lot of money if it’s used wisely. As I said, it’s the reason why we’ve tried to be strategic about where we’re investing, and always trying to match dollar for dollar. Today, it is the largest state initiative. Maryland certainly is talking about $1.1 billion. You argue that California is investing more, but it’s all focused on one area, stem cell research, and it’s primarily going to academic institutions. For our state, particularly in this economy, to stay the course with this investment is really huge.

X: The Boston Globe recently described Wall Street tycoon Carl Icahn as the most influential person in Massachusetts’s biotech industry. What if any concerns do you have that Icahn, who holds major stakes in Biogen Idec and Genzyme, now has the power to impact everyday life sciences workers in the state based on how he buys and sells stocks?

W-B: I’ll flip that and say … Next Page »

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