With Fresh Eyes, A Return To Biotech’s City Within A City


Xconomy Boston — 

What a difference a decade makes. I left the Boston/Cambridge biotech community in 2005, when it was a lot sleepier and a lot smaller. Focused densely within just a few dozen blocks around the MIT campus, nascent successes like Vertex stood shoulder to shoulder with more established companies that were only older by single-digit years.  It was a community where everybody knew your name.

Ten years later, coming back to start Yumanity Therapeutics, I return to a different scene altogether: a sprawling technology city within a city, spilling over its own borders with labs stacked on top of labs, and avenues and streets bustling with the pulse of a newly formed mini-republic.

Like someone who grew up in a suburb that overnight had become a metropolis, I could hardly recognize the house where I grew up or find my old favorite coffee shop amidst the gleam, glitter and steel of my new digs.

No surprise—right? It was going to happen anyway, if we just watered the handful of companies that were already there and let the sunshine of launch successes do the rest.  Somehow, that doesn’t seem to be what happened. I think the boom was intentional—planful almost—and creatively designed with a longer-term vision.  This was the dream-child of a governor faced with dim prospects for stimulating economic growth amidst the worst financial crisis in generations and a handful of biotech luminaries who had broader visions for the proper place of Boston and Cambridge in the pantheon of biotechnology history.

While we have seen biotech grow primarily in geographic clusters, there was something different about the way this seedling was growing.

One thing will always ring true: great science and exceptional technology can come from anywhere. The established hubs—Boston, San Francisco, New York, Raleigh-Durham, Seattle, and San Diego—are all strong innovation clusters with a dynamism and centripetal force that combines science and business and results, time and time again, in powerful and meaningful medical and scientific breakthroughs.

But there’s always been something different about the Cambridge area and San Francisco.  Greater Boston and the Bay Area are premier innovation hubs and have always been leaders amongst peers. One is the birthplace of biotech and home of some of the greats—Genentech and Gilead Sciences, to name a couple. The other has just the right mix of academia, intellect and a white-hot venture capital micro-economy.

But the Greater Boston area has become something even more: an “uber something” that is breathing new life into an already exciting and vibrant industry. The region boasts the highest concentration of life-science research workers in the U.S., making it a desirable home for incubators, startups and a host of big pharmaceutical companies. The energy is palpable with an access to talent that is unrivaled, whether you’re having breakfast at Henrietta’s Table or enjoying a coffee at Voltage (maybe my new favorite?). And you can’t walk from the Kendall T stop to Tech Square without bumping into any number of influential people who are impacting healthcare and the “new” science of immune-based therapy, genomics and gene editing.

With an organized life sciences initiative second to none, focused support from the highest levels of state government, and economic incentives to attract even the most fiscally conservative, Greater Boston has become the futuristic vision of what a city’s “open lab” might look like. The cluster itself is, in a sense, a laboratory experiment to see how one sector might power a region’s steadily recovering economy with job growth and the promise of new revenues.

It has become an almost utopian community, where intellect knows no bounds, and science always trumps difficult disease treatment problems, cracking code after code to derive new state-of-the-art therapies with space-age technologies. If the scarcity of real estate and the never-ending demand for more space are any measure, the point of the grand design has been proven. “If you build it, they will come” was the whisper heard across the fields – and they have come. Boy, have they ever.

So did I. My colleagues and I recently founded Yumanity Therapeutics here, born from science out of Susan Lindquist’s lab in Cambridge at the Whitehead Institute. Our mission: to identify and develop disease-modifying therapies for neurodegenerative diseases. I have come back to that place of my first rite of biotech passage:  where I first learned that the art and science of drug development are powerfully fused in the “new” sciences of the biotechnology industry and where I realized that the next set of cures are probably a stone’s throw away from the Charles.

It’s now a new era in drug development in the Greater Boston area and we’re thrilled to be a part of the promise the region holds for patients and the greatest public health threats facing society. I, for one, can’t wait to see what the future may hold, for the horizon of discovery is truly bright and brimming with the possibility of transforming the lives of those who are counting on us.