Transforming Biotech in Connecticut
The biotech landscape has been shifting and growing rapidly in recent years, quickly becoming a critical industry in Connecticut.
And understanding and supporting that growth and transformation is key for state leaders and policymakers.
“I think there’s probably never been a better time to be in this industry in this state than right now,” said Josh Geballe, senior associate provost for entrepreneurship and innovation at Yale University.
Geballe was part of a discussion with state senators Christine Cohen (D-Guilford) and Tony Hwang (R-Fairfield) moderated by Connecticut Innovations senior managing director Dan Wagner at the Sept. 21 New England Life Science & Biotech Summit, presented by Marcum and CBIA.
Geballe said that despite a challenging financing environment for early-stage companies, there is growing momentum for start-up companies.
“You’re seeing the construction in and around New Haven, other parts of the state. You’re seeing the jobs being created. And you’re seeing the therapies get to market, and that’s what’s most important,” he said.
“For me as a policymaker, bioscience is a real-life difference maker,” said Hwang. “For me, it’s about life enhancement.”
The panel highlighted some of the groundbreaking research, technology, and therapeutics to come out of the state in recent years.
“We’ve been really trying to listen to the industry and provide some fertile ground for which these companies can really grow their roots here in Connecticut,” said Cohen.
Geballe said that one of the main reasons behind the boom of the industry is talent.
“I think it all starts with, with people,” he said. “And that’s been snowballing here for a couple of decades now.”
He said universities like Yale and UConn, as well as companies like Pfizer, Alexion, and others attracted top talent.
And that led to new startups being created.
“As you’re continuing to produce new interesting companies, new job opportunities, and that just has grown and grown over time,” he said.
“I think a lot of that is talent feeding off of one another, you know, companies spawning off of other companies and really wanting to stay put,” added Cohen.
New Haven is one of the main hubs for biotech in Connecticut.
Geballe said that between the success of major companies, and the efforts to expand the number of startups, the region will be an “incredibly dense, vibrant ecosystem” in the coming years.
But the panel stressed the industry’s importance across the entire state.
That includes companies like Pfizer in Groton, Boehringer Ingelheim in Ridgefield, or Jackson Laboratories in Farmington.
“It comes back to fostering academic institutions that nurture and empower researchers to work with their students to be entrepreneurial,” said Hwang.
“We have that kind of fulcrum of activity right now in New Haven, we have that initiation in Farmington in Hartford, we do need to have it throughout the entire state.”
As they evolve, bioscience companies are collaborating with other industries and companies on new technologies like artificial intelligence.
“I’m really excited that that will be a further catalyst for innovation that will help us speed up drug discovery, that will help us improve healthcare delivery, so many other areas where software and AI in particular is going to really drive change, I think in the next, you know, five,10, 20 years,” said Geballe.
Cohen and Hwang co-chair the legislature’s bioscience caucus, a bipartisan group that deals with issues related to the industry.
“It’s really about getting a consortium of legislators together to understand why the life sciences sector is so important to the growth of Connecticut, and what we can do to foster that growth,” said Cohen.
Hwang added that part of their role is to educate fellow legislators on the value of the industry, and the investment that’s needed to support it.
“We’re a state that has a history of financial services, manufacturing, defense, manufacturing,” he said.
“You talk about those things and legislators understand the impact and the economics of what’s in it for their community.
“When you talk about genomics, you talk about sciences, it kind of gets lost in a policymaking role.”
Cohen said there are a number of issues coming into the next legislative session.
That includes data privacy, intellectual property, research and development tax credits, and workforce development.
“We’re one of the smartest states, we’ve got so many people coming out of these high quality institutions,” she said.
“So what are we doing to make sure that the programs are in place, the curriculum’s in place, that these institutions are providing the needs of the companies of the future?”
Lab space is another key issue for biotech companies.
“Once a company just gets out of that incubator space, so you’ve got maybe five to 10 employees, you’re looking for lab space,” said Cohen.
“Because lab space traditionally doesn’t accommodate those smaller sizes.”
“The challenges we deal with are: can we build the lab space fast enough to keep up? Can we find the employees to fill the jobs?” said Geballe.
“Those are the kinds of problems you want to have, because that’s a sign that demand is strong.”
‘Creating an Ecosystem’
As the biotech industry continues to grow, Cohen said it’s important for sector leaders to make their voices heard.
“Make sure that the legislators know how important bio is to Connecticut, how important advancing policies is to continued growth in the state of Connecticut,” she said.
“We all have a responsibility, when we’re talking to people who aren’t from this area, who aren’t seeing it and breathing it every day, to help bring them up to speed on how much growth and momentum we have here in the Connecticut biosciences industry,” added Geballe.
Hwang said it’s critical to “create an ecosystem to allow people to thrive.”
“I’m not a scientist,” he said. “But what I can do is empower these companies and innovators, and let my colleagues know, and the general public know, that supporting biosciences, innovating, is going to be good not only for those companies, but for themselves, for our state and for our economy.”
“We have a competitive advantage right now, we have a great starting point. Let’s support it. Let’s nurture it.”
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