Biotech lab space west of Boston surged 50% since 2007

Cells are prepared for microscopic evaluation at Cell Signaling Technology in Danvers one of a growing number of biotech companies along Route 128.
Cells are prepared for microscopic evaluation at Cell Signaling Technology in Danvers one of a growing number of biotech companies along Route 128.Credit: Lisa Poole for The Boston Globe/File

While much of the economy has been stuck in low gear since the Great Recession, the lifesciences industry has kept on growing in Massachusetts, with the Route 128 corridor leading the way.

The amount of new biotech lab space in the suburbs west of Boston has grown by more than 50 percent since 2007, according to Brendan Carroll, research chief at Richards Barry Joyce and Partners.

From Shire PLC’s new headquarters on Route 128 in Lexington out to Genzyme Corp.’s sprawling Framingham campus, life-sciences companies now control 3.5 million square feet of research and development space across the area, according to Carroll, whose firm puts out a quarterly that is widely followed in the real estate industry.

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To put that into perspective, that’s enough lab space to fill three Prudential towers.

Other parts of the Route 128/Interstate 95 corridor have also seen substantial growth in lab space, especially from Woburn north to Beverly, he said.

Others who track the growth of the life sciences in Massachusetts say those numbers are another sign of the resilience of the state’s innovation economy, especially along the 128 beltway.

“It is still an innovation corridor, but what you are seeing along the 128 corridor is that some of the IT companies are making way for the life-sciences companies,” said Susan Windham-Bannister, president and chief executive of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center.

The boom in lab development, in turn, has played a key role in making Massachusetts the fastest growing state for life sciences jobs during the past five years, industry trackers say.

Life sciences companies kept adding jobs in Massachusetts right through the recession, outpacing all other states, including much larger California, the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council announced in a report it released last month.

Windham-Bannister has been watching the growth of the life sciences sector along Route 128 from her headquarters in Waltham. A quasi-public state agency, the Life Sciences Center provides tax credits and other assistance to companies seeking to hire new employees and expand.

The agency’s location in Waltham means that for overseas and out-of-state companies interested in locating in Massachusetts, the first place they see is the 128 corridor and its growing constellation of life-sciences operations, she said.

“There has been this really explosive growth,” Windham-Bannister said.

Communities along Route 128 have even outperformed Cambridge, adding 1.2 million square feet of lab space between 2007 and the end of the third quarter of this year, Carroll said. His firm tracks lab space from Lexington to Needham on Route 128, and west along Route 9 out to Framingham and Natick as part of the regional market.

That’s compared with 1 million square feet of new lab space built in Cambridge during the same time period.

And even as the amount of lab space has grown, the vacancy rate dropped in half during the past five years, down to a tight 11.8 percent from 22.1 percent in 2007, he said.

Why has 128, long home to high-tech companies, drawn such interest from companies developing new drugs and treatments?

Cost and room to grow are two big reasons, Carroll said. The 128 beltway offers lower real estate prices than the tightly packed Cambridge market, an attraction to both large, established companies looking to expand and younger businesses looking to pump as many dollars as possible into research, rather than overhead.

So where are the hot spots of this suburban lab-space boom?

Shire has spent more than $665 million since 2008 building out its new Lexington headquarters and research complex, which now employs more than a thousand people, said Jessica Cotrone, a company spokeswoman.

The biopharmaceutical company plans to add another 400 jobs in Lexington over the next few years, she said.

And Genzyme Corp. and AstraZeneca have added hundreds of thousands of square feet to their lab complexes in Framingham and Weston, Carroll said.

While the western stretch of 128 has seen considerable growth, there has also been significant growth on the corridor’s northern and southern stretches and beyond to Interstate 495.

Northern Route 128, between Woburn and Beverly, now has more than a million square feet of lab space, up from 827,000 square feet in 2007, Carroll said.

That’s just scratching the surface.

Windham-Bannister, the Massachusetts Life Sciences chief executive, had no problem rolling off a long list of industry operations expanding locally, including:

  IDBS, a British company, opened its US health care headquarters in Burlington.

  Ipsen, a French company, recently opened a $45 million campus in Milford.

  Organogenesis moved its research-and-development headquarters into a $65 million facility in Canton this spring.

  Batavia Bioservices, a Dutch company, opened a small lab in Woburn.

Overall, the Bay State has added 3,521 new biotech research jobs since 2007, according to the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council. Only California came close, with 3,458 new jobs.

Job openings have also rebounded, nearly doubling since 2009 to 6,223 last year, according to the biotech council.

Middlesex County, in turn, saw overall life-sciences employment jump nearly 10 percent since 2007, the council found in a report released last year, according to Peter Abair, head of economic development for the Cambridge-based group. That includes manufacturing, sales and marketing, and management.

“The places where the industry has weathered the storms of the economic downturn the best are places where the industry has had the greatest concentration, the Cambridge core and places like Lexington and Waltham,” Abair said.

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