Jackson Lab: Connecticut Fertile Biotech Ground

Comments on the corporate departures from Connecticut, such as the recent announcement by Alexion Pharmaceuticals Inc., suggest they are symptoms of deep-rooted problems within Connecticut's business climate.

Although this may or may not be the case, it is critical that policymakers understand the national and global context and external forces that are at play here. Rather than adopting simplistic solutions to ill-defined problems, we must think carefully about what we are doing right as well as what we need to change.

Massive shifts are underway throughout the biomedical industry. In particular the global restructuring of the pharmaceutical industry is disrupting markets and driving painful change.

Mergers and acquisitions of multinational corporations have led to the downsizing or closing of the Bayer, Pfizer, Boehringer-Ingleheim and BMS facilities in Connecticut and the loss of thousands of jobs not just in our state, but globally. Downsizing also means consolidation. Often in biopharma, this consolidation is to specific cities such as Boston and San Francisco, and not even to states like Texas or Florida that boast tax breaks. Alexion's 20 percent downsizing was driven by these same global market forces — forces that often defy even the best efforts of any government.

As disconcerting as these trends are, however, there are signs of potential regrowth. A recent analysis by The Connecticut Mirror indicated that there are hundreds more biomedical firms in the state today than ever before. The same business climate that is alleged to have driven so many huge companies from the state apparently has provided the soil to nurture many small new firms.

The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine in Farmington has also benefited from this pro-science environment. Since our opening in 2012, we have grown to more than 310 employees. During this period of time, we have brought in a committed $78.4 million in external research funding, and are launching a number of exciting initiatives to attract more.

We have recruited extraordinarily talented scientists and staff from all over the U.S., who were happy to relocate to Connecticut (including many from Boston, New York, Houston and Dallas, a reverse of the perceived trend). Our partnerships with the University of Connecticut and with the Connecticut Children's Medical Center and our collaborations with Yale have been wonderfully productive. For The Jackson Laboratory, Connecticut has been ideal and we plan to stay.

There has also been a recent spate of discussions about where Connecticut's biomedical center of innovation should be located — New Haven? Farmington? Storrs? I believe that this is a nonissue. One town or city does not need to reign as Connecticut's biomedical hub, nor should it. North Carolina's 75-mile-wide Research Triangle encompasses three universities, eight counties and more than 2 million residents. San Francisco's Silicon Valley is roughly the same size. New Haven, Farmington and Storrs all fit into a similarly sized region. All of our state's most significant research institutions are located in reasonable proximity and are poised to contribute to a Connecticut biotech hub.

But to advance from here, we must foster a nurturing environment where biomedical organizations originating from both within and outside our state will thrive and grow. This means building a statewide innovation ecosystem that is integrated and enabling for businesses and that provides the security, lifestyle and transportation attractive to the entire spectrum of employees in this knowledge-based economy.

This means coordinated institutional efforts, public-private partnerships and a long-term vision. I am optimistic that if we work together toward definable goals, we can simultaneously transform medicine and improve the economy.

Edison T. Liu, M.D., is president and CEO of The Jackson Laboratory, a nonprofit biomedical research institution with campuses in Farmington, Bar Harbor, Maine, and Sacramento, Calif.

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