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Biotech council's direction dismays some members

Turnover, lobbying cited

Robert K. Coughlin has denied violating ethics rules. Robert K. Coughlin has denied violating ethics rules.

As the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council's new leader faces ethics questions, some members say they have become disenchanted with the trade group, including its increasing focus on lobbying, a high staff turnover rate, and the low number of top executives serving on its board.

The council's previous president, former House Speaker Thomas M. Finneran, left in January after pleading guilty to a felony obstruction of justice charge related to a lawsuit. Last week, the state Republican Party filed a complaint with the ethics commission against the group's incoming president, Robert K. Coughlin. The Globe reported earlier that in his former position as the state's undersecretary of housing and economic development, Coughlin waited six weeks to tell his bosses he was talking to recruiters about the biotech council job, even though he was working on state biotech initiatives. Coughlin, who is scheduled to assume his new duties today, has denied violating ethics rules.

"It's a real shame," said Alison Taunton-Rigby, chief executive of RiboNovix Inc. in Lexington, who served on the council board of directors for 18 years. "We are an industry that is very clean and very pure and it hurts to have things like this happen."

The council, founded in 1985, is a nonprofit organization aimed at providing services and support for the growing biotechnology industry, considered crucial to the state's economy.

But Marc Goldberg, who cofounded the council and was a board member for 12 years, said he has been increasingly unhappy with the way it is being run.

"I don't see it providing the kind of leadership I would hope it would provide," said Goldberg, general partner with BioVentures Investors, a venture capital firm. He said the Cambridge company will not renew its membership in the council, partly out of frustration with the council's direction.

David J. McLachlan, a current board member, disagrees, saying the trade group is stronger than ever.

"The organization is extremely well run," said McLachlan, a former executive at Genzyme Corp., the state's largest biotech company. "Membership is up and revenue is up."

The council boasts it had 562 members as of last month, up 13 percent over the past year. It also noted it played a key role in the BIO International Convention, which attracted more than 22,000 attendees to the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center in May.

In addition, the organization won support on Beacon Hill for proposals to help the biotech industry grow. Last year, lawmakers voted to create a new life sciences center and other biotech-related programs as part of an economic stimulus bill. And this year, Governor Deval Patrick unveiled a $1 billion initiative to boost scientific research in the life sciences, although the legislation stalled.

The council's chairman, Michael D. Webb, and its chief operating officer, Mark Robinson, did not return calls seeking comment. Coughlin was also unavailable for comment, a spokesman said.

McLachlan acknowledged that the council has suffered significant turnover. Of nine staff members listed on the group's website five years ago, only one remains.

"Most of our employees are fairly young. And you do tend to have higher turnover with younger workers," he said.

Some also question why more high-profile chief executives do not serve on the council's board. For instance, the national Biotechnology Industry Organization in Washington, which runs the BIO convention, is dominated by powerful chief executives, including representatives from four of the biggest biotech companies in Cambridge: Genzyme, Biogen Idec Inc., Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc., and Millennium Pharmaceuticals Inc. But none of those companies' leaders serve on the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council's board; instead, they are represented by other managers, such as Genzyme's director of community relations.

McLachlan said that is because chief executives of the biggest local biotech companies are too busy to serve on both boards.

"Their priority is the national" issues, he said. "It doesn't mean they are not involved. Every time we need their support, it is always there."

The state council does have several top executives from smaller and midsized biotech companies on its board, including those from Avant Immunotherapeutics Inc. of Needham and GTC Biotherapeutics Inc. in Framingham.

Some council members have also complained that the group spends too much time lobbying lawmakers at the expense of its other activities. Finneran was long one of the most powerful politicians in the state. Janice T. Bourque, the council's first employee and former president, abruptly stepped down in 2004 prior to Finneran's hiring. Coughlin is a former state representative who has been working for Patrick since January on economic development issues.

RiboNovix's Taunton-Rigby said activity on Beacon Hill is of less interest to smaller members than networking and other benefits that can more directly help their businesses. She said the only reason her company plans to remain a member is to take advantage of purchasing discounts. The biotech council has negotiated an array of contracts with vendors to offer savings on everything from lab equipment to corporate travel.

Despite her concerns, Taunton-Rigby is optimistic the council will recover from this year's negative publicity. She said she believes the group will continue to have clout, because of the industry's enormous potential to create jobs and make medical breakthroughs.

"The drugs that we develop really help patients," she said. "It changes people's lives."

Todd Wallack can be reached at twallack@globe.com.

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