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Hub aims to build on reputation for research funding

By Robert Weisman
Globe Staff / June 28, 2011

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Boston officials are seizing on the city’s status as a magnet for federal research funding in a new campaign to brand the emerging Seaport business district as an innovation center and persuade out-of-state and foreign life sciences companies to set up shop there.

At the Biotechnology Industry Organization convention in Washington, D.C., today, Mayor Thomas M. Menino is scheduled to release a Boston Redevelopment Authority report showing that Boston drew more National Institutes of Health grant dollars in 2010 than any other US city for the 16th straight year.

Last year’s awards to Boston recipients, especially teaching hospitals and academic labs clustered in the Longwood medical area, totaled $2.1 billion. That was down from the record $2.4 billion in 2009, when federal stimulus grants were included, but more than any previous year.

Boston will host next year’s annual BIO convention, which is expected to attract about 20,000 biotechnology executives and investors. In advance of the international gathering, city officials are highlighting the concentration of medical research as a lure for companies seeking new drugs and partners.

“We have to show the outside world that we’re a city that welcomes them,’’ Menino said. “We’ve been a leader for so many years and we’ve got great possibilities.’’

While the city also hosted the BIO convention in 2007, it had only limited success in parlaying the attention into the recruitment of new businesses. But the mayor maintains that Boston is now more attractive as a life sciences center.

Last week, developers broke ground on the Fan Pier headquarters of Vertex Pharmaceuticals Inc., the Cambridge drug maker that recently won US approval for a new hepatitis C treatment. Earlier in the month, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc. unveiled an alliance with Boston hospitals and universities with plans to establish a research center in the heart of the Longwood area.

Boston hopes to build on those successes — while also highlighting about 50 small businesses that have moved into the Seaport area in the last couple of years — as it tries to attract more visitors to next year’s BIO event. “Our message is bring your businesses here, not just your suitcase,’’ said Peter Meade, BRA director.

The marketing effort will be aided by the Boston area’s standing as one of the nation’s reigning life sciences hubs, though most of the US and global drug giants that have established a foothold here in recent years have chosen addresses in neighboring Cambridge, closer to Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But with Vertex moving across the river, Boston officials believe the life sciences cluster can be expanded.

“I want to sell Boston,’’ Menino said. “What is good for Boston is good for the whole region.’’

Among those expected to hear the major’s message will be many Massachusetts life sciences executives and other employees — about 750 have registered for the conference. There will be 44 exhibitors at the 2,400-square-foot Massachusetts pavilion, ranging from companies such as Myriant Technologies of Quincy to Children’s Hospital Boston and other institutions.

The new report on NIH funding shows that teaching hospitals accounted for nearly $1.3 billion of Boston’s total grant awards last year, led by five affiliated with Harvard Medical School. Top recipients were Massachusetts General Hospital with $382.5 million, Brigham and Women’s Hospital with $355.6 million, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute with $161 million, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center with $154 million, and Children’s Hospital with $126 million.

Menino and Meade said they will also stress Boston’s high concentration of young researchers and scientists, many of them newly minted graduates of the city’s colleges and universities. To bolster their case, officials will cite census figures showing Boston ranks as the city with the highest proportion of 20- to 34-year-olds in the nation, with about 35 percent of the city’s population in that age group.

That statistic will be used by the city to help counter the perception that Boston is an expensive place to do business. “There may be lower-cost locations, but they don’t have the brainpower,’’ Menino said. “We have the kids from MIT and BU and Northeastern.’’

Robert Weisman can be reached at weisman@globe.com.