New medical research firms proof of Connecticut's chemistry
By PAUL SCHOTT
Oct. 23, 2017
STAMFORD, Conn. (AP) — Some of the country's most promising biotech firms think Connecticut has the right economic DNA to support their businesses.
The September opening of genomic testing firm Sema4's headquarters in Stamford points to the appeal of the area for expanding enterprises looking for more space in a central location with a strong research-and-development tradition. But experts say Stamford and other cities will not fulfill their potential as bioscience hubs unless the state tackles its fiscal and infrastructure problems.
"Businesses, including tech and biopharma businesses, have woken up now, and people around the country are looking at Connecticut," said Paul Pescatello, executive director and general counsel for the Connecticut Bioscience Growth Council. "But more and more articles about Connecticut's fiscal problems certainly don't help. Still, even with those long-term challenges, I'm optimistic. I think they're very solvable."
Spun off earlier this year from the Mount Sinai Health System in Manhattan, Sema4 was looking for affordable office space to accommodate its growing operations. It employs about 75 at its new base in Stamford's South End and plans to nearly double that number by the middle of next year.
The new headquarters complements a laboratory for sequencing of DNA-based tests Sema4 opened about two years ago in Branford, where it employs about 50. In total, the company has around 385 employees, with the remainder based in Manhattan.
"We were born and raised at Mount Sinai, and what we were doing got pretty successful and grew to a pretty good size, to a point where we felt like it'd be better to move that outside," Eric Schadt, founder and CEO of Sema4, said during an October meeting at the new offices with Stamford Mayor David Martin. "Expanding dramatically in New York City is very difficult and expensive, so Stamford topped the list as being in this corridor."
Other biotech startups have set up in Stamford in recent years. Loxo Oncology, which is working on therapies for genetically defined cancers, has been based in the city since its 2013 founding. Cara Therapeutics, which is developing treatments for acute and chronic pain and pruritus, relocated last year from Shelton.
"It's worked out nicely because Stamford is close to New York City, where a lot of our large shareholders are and where Memorial Sloan Kettering (Cancer Center) is," Loxo CEO Joshua Bilenker said in an interview earlier this year. "There is a biopharma community here. . It has turned out that we're reasonably situated to build a strong team here in Stamford."
City officials said they hope similar firms move to Stamford in the coming years.
"We're starting to build the ecosystem, as another business sector within Stamford," said Thomas Madden, Stamford's economic development director. "With the talent coming out of New York and the fact that New York City is pretty much out of space, this is the alternative to come up to."
Stamford's largest biotech company, Purdue Pharma, has been headquartered in the city since 2000. It operates in an approximately 350,000-square-foot base at 201 Tresser Blvd., a block from Cara's and Loxo's offices.
Growing the bioscience sector represents an important part of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's economic agenda.
Milestones since Malloy became governor in January 2011 include the renovation of University of Connecticut health buildings in Farmington, the opening of the Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine in Farmington and the launch of a $200 million bioscience innovation fund.
"No matter where you are in the state, you can make it work for bioscience," Catherine Smith, the state's economic development director, said in a recent interview.
The state is an industry leader in a number of areas, according to a 2014 report by the Biotechnology Innovation Organization and the research-and-development group Battelle. Connecticut placed fourth nationally in bioscience patents for every 1 million people between 2009 and 2013. It also ranked fourth in the country for per-capita spending in academic bioscience research and development in the 2012 fiscal year.
About 24,000 in Connecticut were working in 2012 in bioscience, with the sector affecting a total of about 113,000 positions, according to the report.
Connecticut Innovations, the agency that manages the state bioscience investment fund, has made in the past year several key investments, including about $500,000 in BioHaven Pharmaceutical. The New Haven-based firm, which is developing treatments for anxiety and depression, raised $168 million in a May initial public offering.
"Most of the ones we get involved with are early stage, so we are hopefully setting the table for the next phase of larger financing," said Dan Wagner, Connecticut Innovations' managing director of investments. "Our focus is to be relatively opportunistic and get companies to move to Connecticut, set up shop and grow their teams here and hopefully be successful."
As it looks to recruit more biotech firms, Connecticut can continue to lean on its geography. None of its five largest cities are more than 200 miles from either Boston or New York City.
But the state is hobbled by aging and congested rail and road infrastructure. The state's troubled finances also hinder its corporate recruitment, with Connecticut carrying the unwanted distinction of being the only state in the country not to have passed a budget for the current fiscal year.
"We still compete," Pescatello said. "But if we had our fiscal house in order and transportation were improved, we could compete a lot better."
While stabilizing the state's finances and upgrading its infrastructure would make it more attractive to the private sector, business experts say the state would also need to cultivate other areas to create a booming bioscience community. They also suggest the state avoid trying to compete with biotech hubs such as the Boston area.
"Connecticut is going to have find a niche where it can be particularly effective," said Bill Aulet, managing director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "You have to have a population with people who will start new companies and be able to commercialize new ideas. You have to build a culture of entrepreneurship."
Information from: The Advocate, http://www.stamfordadvocate.com