At first blush, it’s all about stem cells. But Gov. Deval Patrick’s sweeping plan to invest $1 billion in biotechnology research and life sciences companies over the next 10 years is also about jobs.
The proposal, which includes money to encourage companies to expand here and attract new ones, is expected to be an economic boon for the North of Boston region, where a cluster of biotechnology businesses has formed.
“This is great news for us,” said Robert Halpin, president of the Merrimack Valley Economic Development Council.
Christopher Perley, general manger of Wyeth in Andover, said the promise of a billion-dollar investment sends a strong signal that Massachusetts wants biotechnology companies here. And once they start moving here, more will follow.
“This is an initiative that is a catalyst to get that going,” Perley said. “Then it becomes self-sustaining.”
Perley said the governor’s life sciences initiative would influence Wyeth’s expansion plans for Massachusetts, where it has facilities in Andover and Cambridge.
“Longer term, this would be an attractive place for Wyeth to be,” Perley said.
Wyeth, a leading maker of prescription and over-the-counter drugs, had revenues of more than $20 billion last year.
Biotech jobs are important for North of Boston cities and towns. Wyeth employs 1,900 people in Andover.
Andover Town Manager Buzz Stapczynski said those jobs are especially valuable, because they pay high salaries. The company also contributes to the town’s tax base.
The governor’s plan, he said, is good for Andover.
“It helps companies stay in Andover and in Massachusetts that would be attracted to other states and countries,” Stapczynski said.
How important is biotech to Andover?
While Patrick was pitching his plan at the Bio 2007 International Convention in Boston, Stapczynski was there to pitch his town.
“The reason we were there was to promote Andover as a life-science location for industries around the world,” he said.
It’s not just Andover that stands to benefit.
Accusphere in nearby Tewksbury and Millipore Corp. in Billerica are some of the biotech companies that employ hundreds of North of Boston residents.
Many of the biotech companies are small ones.
Val Krukonis, president of Lawrence-based Phasex Corp., said his seven-person company expects to get a piece of the biotech bonanza.
“If there’s funding for good ideas, we’re going to get some funding,” he said.
Phasex’s business includes developing lubricants used by companies that build computer hard drives. Making state money available will help the company grow.
“This is going to leapfrog us forward,” Krukonis said.
Patrick’s life-science initiative, which will be included in legislation filed later this year, includes borrowing $500 million for capital improvements to public colleges where biotech research is done.
The state also will spend $25 million a year on research grants and another $25 million annually on tax credits for biotech companies that promise to create jobs in the Bay State.
Massachusetts isn’t the first state to propose spending state money on biotech. California proposed issuing bonds for a $3 billion biotech initiative.
House Republican Leader Bradley H. Jones Jr. questioned whether the state should be spending money on biotech when the state’s financial picture is uncertain and there are other pressing needs.
“It sounds like a good investment in a field we want to encourage,” Jones said, “but how does it fit into the needs we identify on a weekly basis?”
Others, like Seqens President Edward Price, said encouraging biotechnology is a good idea. His Newburyport company manufacturers drugs that biotech companies develop.
One stumbling block is the work force.
Massachusetts workers have been leaving the state for years, and population growth has been stagnant.
Price suggested companies might be discouraged from expanding or locating here because they can’t find qualified workers.
“I think the big problem Massachusetts faces in the short term is a lack of human resources,” Price said.
Still, Wyeth’s Perley said the governor’s focus on biotech is right.
“This is an investment that will come back many times over,” Perley said. “Stem cells are at the early stage. I think it’s the role of government to step in and get the ship moving.”