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Patrick: State is losing edge in biotech

Urges swift OK for $1b plan

Governor Deval Patrick made a pitch for his $1 billion initiative to support life-sciences research during a hearing yesterday by a joint committee on emerging technologies. Governor Deval Patrick made a pitch for his $1 billion initiative to support life-sciences research during a hearing yesterday by a joint committee on emerging technologies. (JONATHAN WIGGS/GLOBE STAFF)

Governor Deval Patrick urged the Legislature yesterday to act quickly on his 10-year, $1 billion life-sciences initiative, saying the state is losing its grip on one of its most important industries.

"As we gather here today, our competitors are actively luring our state's best and brightest researchers, doctors and entrepreneurs," Patrick said during a midday hearing of the Joint Committee on Economic Development and Emerging Technologies. "For Massachusetts - a state dependent on intellectual capital and research - the threat is real and the stakes are high."

The legislation, which Patrick first outlined in May and filed in July, would finance cutting-edge research, create the nation's largest stem-cell bank, and provide expanded tax credits to life-science companies.

It is designed to both lure new businesses to Massachusetts and help retain graduate students who often move elsewhere for work after obtaining their degrees.

Critics have argued that Patrick's plan is too costly and would reward the biotechnology industry while ignoring other fields. Antiabortion groups have also opposed the bill because it invests heavily in embryonic stem-cell research, which they say destroys human life.

Nearly two dozen supporters, including hospital executives, university professors, and pharmaceutical specialists, testified before the committee at the State House.

"Every single top researcher at our institution has been offered a job elsewhere - California, Pennsylvania, it doesn't matter," said Dr. James Mandell, president and chief executive officer of Children's Hospital Boston. "The way to keep them here is to make sure they understand that the infrastructure is here for them to be successful."

Patrick, who has grown increasingly frustrated over the pace of the Legislature in taking up several of his initiatives, said yesterday that inaction on the biotechnology bill caused Swiss drug manufacturer Novartis to scrap expansion plans in Massachusetts. The firm, which has offices in Cambridge, had planned to create 400 new jobs and 700,000 square feet of new office and laboratory space, Patrick said, but "our inaction on this proposal over many months caused them to abandon those plans here and focus instead on other states."

"We need swift action," Patrick told reporters yesterday after the hearing. "We need to show movement."

A Novartis spokesman said Massachusetts was on the company's short list of expansion sites, but officials chose instead to build in Singapore for "a whole host of reasons."

"When we decide to locate any facility we look globally," said the spokesman, Jeff Lockwood. "There are a lot of factors that go into these decisions. I couldn't say with any certainty" whether the biotechnology bill was a factor.

Legislators were generally supportive of the governor's bill, although some raised questions about whether the state can afford to commit $1 billion, particularly in light of other expensive initiatives Patrick has unveiled recently for education and transportation.

"All of us are struggling with the issue of a cost-benefit analysis," said state Senator Susan Tucker, a Democrat from Andover. "This is a very expensive proposal."

Legislators also expressed concern about the proposed tax credits, and whether providing the credits to life-science companies would be unfair to other industries.

"The devil is in the details - where do you give the tax break? Who do you give it to?" said state Representative Daniel Bosley, a North Adams Democrat and cochairman of the committee. But he then held his fingers a centimeter apart and said, "We are this close to agreeing on everything."

The bill would authorize $500 million to build a stem-cell bank and research center at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, where scientist Craig Mello won the Nobel Prize in Medicine last fall for his genetic research.

The 10-year initiative would also provide $25 million a year for research grants, fellowships, and workforce training programs, and authorize another $25 million a year for a range of tax incentives for life-science companies.

The governor has also stressed that he wants to help streamline development, which takes a notoriously long time in Massachusetts.

Daniel O'Connell, secretary of the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development, said his staff is identifying communities in Massachusetts that want to house biotechnology firms, and within six months the state will have a portfolio of sites where permits could be issued within 180 days.

Matt Viser can be reached at maviser@globe.com.

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