Chemistry May Be Right For Biotech Program

Glance at a map showing the geographic distribution of biotechnology employment in the Bay State, as measured by the Mass. Biotechnology Council (MBC), and you’ll see a huge blue circle representing the 15,000 or so jobs clustered in Cambridge. 

There are also several smaller circles indicating pockets of employment in Boston, Framingham, Andover, Worcester, and other Eastern and Central Mass. communities. Then, there is a tiny dot, the only sign of life west of Worcester, pinpointing Agawam. That dot is MicroTest Laboratories, which currently employs about 100 people and recently won a contract to provide manufacturing support for the production of vaccines to combat botulism.

John Dobiecki, vice president and general manager of Laboratory and Manufacturing Services for the company, said MicroTest wouldn’t mind some company in the Pioneer Valley. He believes Western Mass. offers a viable alternative to high-priced Cambridge, and also to North Carolina, California, and even Ireland — all places where biotechnology firms have settled recently.

For the Valley to become a player in the biotech sector, however, it must have a critical mass of research and new product development, said Dobiecki — something that will likely be gained through the Baystate Medical Center-University of Massachusetts-Amherst Biomedical Re-search Institute now taking shape in Amherst and Springfield.

But it must also have a workforce.

And that was the subject under discussion at a meeting last month between MicroTest officials, administrators at Springfield Technical Community Col-lege, and MBC representatives. Specifi-cally, those assembled discussed implementation of a BEST (Building Essential Skills through Training) program designed to create a pipeline of trained employees for the so-called biomanufacturing sector in Massachusetts.

A recent report on the health of the state’s biotechnology sector, commissioned by the MBC, lists workforce issues among the many factors contributing to a loss of some biotechnology jobs to other regions. Other concerns include the high cost of living in the state, especially the Boston/Cambridge area, and the non-aggressive attitude of state economic development leaders, who have watched states like North Carolina actively court developing biotech companies and offer attractive incentives for them to locate there.

BEST, a $3.5 million career-development program created by former Acting Gov. Jane Swift, initiated a biotech program to address some of the workforce concerns.

Both Roxbury Community College and Middlesex Community College have implemented BEST biotech programs, and they have helped fill vacancies and upgrade the skills of existing workers at such companies as Biogen, Genzyme, and ImmunoGen. The intensive, four-week program features a curriculum coordinated with the help of industry leaders, said Cora Beth Abel, director of education for the MBC, one that helps generate the high degrees of reliability and accountability demanded of workers in this field.

Thomas Goodrow, vice president of Economic and Business Development at STCC, said the college is looking at the BEST program as perhaps one component of a broad biotechnology initiative. The college has an Associate in Science in Biotechnology degree program, and is hoping to make biotechnology the next frontier at its technology park and Springfield Enterprise Center, he said.

The tech park currently hosts 18 companies, many of them in information technology fields. Goodrow said the college, in its efforts to diversify the park, may dedicate the remaining building in the complex for existing and start-up biotechnology companies.

The synergy that would exist between the educational and entrepreneurial components of that strategy could make the college a logical site for the BEST biotechnology program, said Mishy Lesser, vice president of program and resource development for Common-wealth Corporation, which administers BEST.

However, she and others questioned whether there was a sufficient critical mass of biotechnology companies in the area to warrant a program. Lisa Rapp, chair of the school’s Biotechnology program, said enrollment has been limited to a handful of students — many of whom have found employment at MicroTest — due in part to a lack of job opportunities in the area.

“There is definitely a chicken-and-the-egg scenario at work here,” said Lesser, referring to the probability that some biotech companies are hesitant to consider Western Mass. due to a shortage of trained workers, while area residents have reservations about entering the field because there are few jobs in this region.

Goodrow said a wide-ranging biotechnology initiative at the college — working as a complement to the UMass-Baystate institute — could address both sides of the equation. “We could encourage new ventures in this field and help supply a workforce for it,” he said.

Dobiecki agreed, and said the Pioneer Valley holds vast potential as a biotech center — if an infrastructure that includes several companies in the field, as well as a quality workforce and the educational facilities to train those workers, can be created.

“There are a number of reasons why companies may find it difficult to locate in Cambridge, starting with the cost of doing business and the cost of living,” said Dobiecki. “This region can be a viable alternative for keeping biotech companies in this state.”

College, MBC, and MicroTest officials agreed to study the matter further to determine if BEST makes a good fit for the college, and vice-versa.

— O’Brien