BY ADAM VACCARO
On Nov. 2, 2006, the 4-month-old Somerville Life Sciences Collaborative (SLSC) hosted a morning gala titled “Meet the Stem Cell Experts.” SLSC, consisting of members of Mayor Joe Curtatone’s administration, representatives of Tufts University, and Bedford Stem Cell Research (17 Herbert St.) director Ann Kiessling, saw the event as an opportunity to tout the city as an ideal growth spot for the thriving biotech industry.
Two internationally-known stem cell scientists addressed a buzzing crowd. Kiessling took advantage of the opportunity to tell both Somerville residents and industry aficionados about the work her small nonprofit was exploring in Davis Square. Curtatone pitched Somerville as perfectly dynamic, close enough to Boston and Cambridge to benefit from their life science and research bases yet independent enough to offer a unique urban character to any biotech company looking to call the city home. And Somerville, he said, wanted them to call it just that.
“We’re trying to capture and really evolve the potential of a life sciences industry here in Somerville,” he said.
At the time, in addition to Bedford, the city’s biotech base included Thermedical Inc. (35 Medford St.), which develops systems to assist in the treatment of cancer and heart disease, and Plectix Biosystems, which was not a biotech company itself but sold software to biotechs across the country. Cambridge’s Biogen Idec. also had some office space in the city limits. Today, little has changed in the landscape except that Plectix went out of business with the recession.
SLSC has gone in a similar direction. Kiessling says she and Curtatone haven’t spoken in “two or three years.” She was surprised to hear of Thermedical, as she’s repeatedly asked the city for a list of life science companies within the city limits, to no response. Though Bedford, whose lease was set to expire in March, has agreed to stay in Somerville for another three years, Kiessling doesn’t know if she’ll make the same decision in 2015.
Biotechs need other biotechs nearby in order to thrive, be it through shared research, shared equipment, or by simply attracting others of their kind. Cities, meanwhile, benefit from the increased property values – and thereby increased tax revenues – research and development space yields. Further, those high-end commercial taxes could be the key to relieving residents of their share of the tax levy burden, which increased 38 cents in Somerville this year to $13.09 per thousand dollars in assessed value.
Kiessling has been pushing for an expanded biotech industry in Somerville since those first SLSC meetings and, dismayed, she still doesn’t see it happening. “I can’t do this on my own,” she says.
One floating theory is that the biotech industry will come to Somerville when it’s good and ready. State Rep. Denise Provost thinks that there’s only so much room for biotech in Cambridge, and if Somerville clears the space for those businesses, it stands to reason that they’ll eventually cross the city limits.
“There’s under-utilized land in the Brickbottom and Boynton Yards areas of the city that are going to be opened up,” she says. “They may not be right on the doorstep of MIT, but they are a strong continuation of an existing biotech area. It’s a logical expansion of East Cambridge.” The Inner Belt and Brickbottom neighborhoods have been identified by the Curtatone administration as spots for high-end development.
The City’s decision to terminate Waste Management’s (10 Poplar St.) lease, effective this coming October, is meant to stimulate commercial development in the area ahead of the Green Line extension stop planned for Washington Street.
The increased transit opportunities that the Green Line represents will also play a role. Chris Pirie recently earned his doctorate from MIT and his start-up clean chemistry company will move into lab space in Cambridge this year. Pirie says he never considered Somerville as an option, primarily because it did not offer easy public transit access. Similarly, Thermedical founder and president Michael Curley says the lack of train access is his only major complaint regarding his Somerville location, and Kiessling says one of Bedford’s advantages in Davis is the Red Line stop.
Assembly Row’s development figures to further factor into Somerville’s biotech development, at least in theory. Wig Zamore, a founding member of both Mystic View Task Force and Somerville Transportation Equity Parnership, can rattle off the reasons Assembly is well-suited to the research and development field. First, the Orange Line station will put Assembly within an easy commute of all seven major research institutions around Boston, as well as all of its hospitals. The waterfront and potential green space the area offers are also very attractive to these companies. But as Assembly Square’s big box stores and a movie theater set the early tone for the empty space, time will tell whether Assembly developers Federal Realty Investment Trust (FRIT) are suited for and committed to the high-end projects – office and lab space – biotech companies require.
“The foundational pieces are there,” says Zamore. “We need to continue to focus on the features of those high-employment buildings.”
Zamore speaks strongly of the opportunities Assembly represents for Somerville, but cautions that attracting high-tech companies is not as simple as build-it-and-they-will-come. “There are probably 50 cities in the United States positioned to compete like Somerville is,” he says. “But it’s not just there for the taking…You have to compete for it.”
City, state, developer
Representatives of the administration and FRIT say they have worked to lure biotechs to Somerville. The state’s capacity for influence appears fairly minimal.
“You have to be proactive,” says Curtatone. “You can’t just wait it out.” The mayor says he is open to any number of ways to lure biotechs to Somerville, from tax breaks for high-tech start-ups to zoning adjustments to campaigning for Green Line ground breaking. “We’ll do anything to make us more competitive,” he says.
City spokesman Tom Champion says the optimism the city and Bedford shared in 2006 is still alive on the administration’s end with the Green Line apparently inching closer to breaking ground and Assembly nearing further development. By Curtatone and Champion’s estimate, the city has positioned itself
to attract high-tech businesses like biotechs with the work it’s done since SLSC founded and subsequently folded. The legwork, they say, has been done. Soon it may be time to see results. FRIT’s Boston president Don Briggs, meanwhile, says Assembly could “absolutely” be a spot for biotechs. It won’t, however, be a spot for start-ups. Briggs does not foresee Assembly offering the kind of incubator space that could propel start-ups into real life science players, something Kiessling claims she had spoken with FRIT and Curtatone about in 2006.
Instead, FRIT hopes Assembly eventually attracts companies that have outgrown their start-up space in the urban core, be it Somerville or elsewhere, but do not want to move to the biotech friendly MetroWest. They are actively trying to court companies that have already made it big, Briggs says. Last summer, pharmaceutical giant Vertex strongly considered setting up in Assembly before deciding on the South Boston waterfront. That Vertex even considered a not-yet developed Assembly may be a good sign for its development as a biotech hotspot.
FRIT, however, has always focused on residential and retail space, and has little experience building for research and development. Briggs says FRIT is willing to form partnerships to develop this sort of space, or that it could learn to develop it on its own. However, he says, Assembly’s first phase will see further investment in residential and retail properties. Whether the base this provides will ultimately prove attractive to life science firms will remain to be seen. Briggs says he is betting that it will.
At the state level, Provost says, there’s not too much that can be done. Government-funded bodies like the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, which give grants to life science players across the state, rarely give to start-ups or even big business, but instead channel their resources into higher education.
Even if the legislature wanted to change the way these organizations operate, it couldn’t; they are considered quasi-autonomous from the government, protecting them from the political will. Provost says that continuing to work towards implementing the Green Line extension is the most tangible way the state can assist Somerville in developing its economic base, biotech or otherwise.
Indeed, Somerville seems to have plenty to offer the biotech industry. Thermedical’s Curley says he set up shop in the city because rent was more affordable than in other urban spots, but he’s found other benefits. Being located near MIT, Harvard and Tufts has helped Curley attract workers right out of school. He also says the city’s atmosphere is workplace friendly. “Somerville is very nice,” he says. “There are a lot of good places to eat or from which to cater lunches, which helps the work environment.”
Kiessling agrees; Davis’s restaurants and shops present a stark contrast, she says, to Kendall Square, which offers little in the way of social options for its legions of scientists.
That sentiment is shared by city hall. Curtatone even suggested that efforts to market Kendall as a spot to “live, work, eat, shop and play” may be directly deriven from his oft-recited refrain of Somerville as a “great place to live, work and play.” “They’re copying a great city,” he says. “Just as we’ve looked to Kendall to see how to create great industry. They’re finally looking to Somerville to see how to create exceptional neighborhoods.”
The difference, of course, is that Kendall is already packed with acres of high-value research and development property that bring Cambridge jobs and tax revenue. For Somerville to benefit in the same ways, it will need to play host to similar developments.
Ahead of the curve?
In April of 2007, Kiessling and city hall split the costs of a table at the BIO International Convention in Boston, hoping to lure companies to its pastures. They came back empty-handed, and Kiessling came back a bit empty in spirit as well. “Around that time,” she says, “people on the Board started asking me just what I was getting out of [the partnership].”
The mayor says the early partnership has helped position the city moving forward, but Bedford isn’t getting any younger. At worst, Bedford chose a poor home if it wanted to be in a biotech-rich community. At best, it’s ahead of the curve.
“We’re just happy they chose Somerville as a home,” Curtatone says. “There’s so many stories about companies like Bedford Stem Cell that started in Somerville and couldn’t stay here…We want to set the environment not to just get companies started in Somerville, but to grow them here.”