Q&A: Xconomy Award Winner Rob Perez On How Boston Biotech Can Get Involved With The Community

Xconomy Boston — 

In 2015, as Rob Perez (pictured) was leaving Cubist Pharmaceuticals, he knew that he wanted to do more to make a difference in the Boston community.

As Cubist’s chief operating officer and president (and CEO, briefly, before Cubist was acquired by Merck), Perez had a lot to do with getting Cubist employees involved outside of the company. “I wanted to make this a bigger part of my life,” he says.

Through talking with local philanthropists, he heard that the Boston life sciences industry had a reputation of not giving back to the community as much as other sectors. Perez says he didn’t think that was a fair perception, but adds that most biotech companies are small and not profitable, which makes it hard for them to engage in community service. So, Perez got the idea to create a nonprofit that would provide life science companies both large and small, as well as individuals in the industry, with ways to contribute. For this work, Perez received the Community Contribution of the Year Award from Xconomy at our first-ever awards gala on September 26.

Perez founded Life Science Cares (LSC) last year, which has a board of advisors with nearly 100 members—executives from across the industry. These people personally cover the administrative costs of LSC so that all the money it raises—more than $1 million so far—is donated to local nonprofits that LSC has vetted and partnered with for their work in fighting poverty in Boston. LSC also matches volunteers from the industry with these partners. Perez, who is LSC’s chairman, says his organization can act almost like an outsourced corporate social responsibility department for smaller companies that can’t afford to have their own.

This summer, LSC launched a “Summer of Service” campaign, spurring more than 50 volunteers from 20 companies to perform or pledge more than 1,000 hours of service. Volunteers can do a range of activities, from mentoring students as they complete their first internships to being writing coaches for eighth-grade students.

One of LSC’s partners is Cambridge, MA-based Food For Free, which collects fresh food that would otherwise be wasted and distributes it to food pantries and other emergency food programs. Sarah MacDonald, LSC’s executive director, connected the nonprofit with large life sciences companies in Kendall Square—Sanofi, Novartis, and Takeda—which are now donating leftover food from their cafeterias. From Sanofi alone, that has been enough to provide 20 to 50 meals a week, MacDonald says.

LSC is now focused on scaling up: partnering with more nonprofits, matching them with more volunteers, talking to more biotech companies, and, by the end of this year, launching a more formal process to give grants to their partners.

I spoke with Perez before the gala about LSC. Here are edited excerpts of our conversation.

Xconomy: What’s your goal and vision with Life Science Cares?

Rob Perez: It’s about results and output. That means that we want to feed the hungry. We want to help educate young people who have just as much promise as young people in the suburbs, but don’t have the same opportunities. We want to help people break out of poverty.

In the life sciences, we have a ton of brilliant people who care deeply about humanity. It’s why they go to work in this industry every day. Our vision is to tap into that energy and resource, and provide a vehicle that can produce those outcomes and results.

X: What’s in it for biotech businesses to get involved?

RP: I don’t think any of us or any of our companies succeed alone. All of our companies do great work, and they should be proud of what they’ve accomplished. But regardless of how big or small they are, they have an ecosystem that supports them. And a lot of people who are part of that ecosystem are not benefiting from the economy the way that many of our employees are. The income inequality is as great here [in greater Boston] as it is anywhere. People who are not in the knowledge economy are still very vital to our overall community, and life science leaders know that that’s something we need to address. It’s not only a moral issue but an economic one that is important to all of us.

Companies are also realizing, if they can help to engage their employees [with the community], they can end up with an overall corporate engagement that is much better. And there are a ton of studies showing that higher employee engagement means better results. So, it’s not only good for the community, it also helps companies themselves and their performance, and life science leaders know that.

X: What drove you to want to contribute more to the city?

RP: I’ve lived in Boston for a little more than 20 years, but I’m not from here. I’m an L.A. kid. I grew up in L.A., nowhere near as challenged as many of the young people we serve, but I was not in a situation where my family had a lot of resources. I saw a lot of people who were as smart and talented as me, but maybe their parents weren’t as supportive or just weren’t as lucky as I was.

Effort and talent are important, and I would never take away from anyone’s success, but I also know there are a lot of people out there who are just as deserving but haven’t had the same level of success, even though they work just as hard, if not harder. My goal is to try to make sure everyone has the same opportunities.

This is the second in a series of articles about the winners of the inaugural Xconomy Awards. The first was a Q&A with Lita Nelsen, who took home a Lifetime Achievement Award.