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Forever 128

Firm’s flight from 128 is hardly trend

Biogen Idec’s decision to abandon its brand-new headquarters complex in Weston has generated much discussion. Biogen Idec’s decision to abandon its brand-new headquarters complex in Weston has generated much discussion. (Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff/File 2010)
By Scott Van Voorhis
August 4, 2011

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Biogen Idec’s startling decision last month to move back to Cambridge struck a blow to Route 128’s rising reputation as a hotspot for life sciences companies.

Yet the demise of the life sciences industry along the Interstate 95/Route 128 corridor has been greatly exaggerated.

Even as Biogen Idec prepares to lease out its new Weston headquarters and return to Kendall Square, several other life sciences companies are looking to bolt Cambridge for larger and less expensive office and research compounds along 128, real estate specialists say.

“I don’t expect anytime soon to see this trend of moving west slow down,’’ said Susan Windham-Bannister, president and chief executive of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, a quasi-public agency overseeing tax credits and other subsidies for the industry that has set up shop in Waltham.

While Cambridge has the luster, Route 128 has cheaper and more plentiful office, lab, and light manufacturing space, according to brokers. Even with Biogen Idec’s big move back to Cambridge, life sciences companies still rival software firms for numbers along what was once known as “America’s Technology Highway.’’

Or course, that’s not to say the decision by Biogen Idec’s new chief executive officer, George Scangos, to consolidate all of the company’s operations in Kendall Square won’t hurt.

It will temporarily blast a 356,000-square-foot hole in the Route 128 office market.

But at least a half dozen other life sciences firms are in various stages of making the move from Cambridge out to 128.

And while most are much smaller than Biogen Idec, collectively they could take much of the sting out of the big company’s move back to Cambridge, observers say.

Just take BioScale, which recently cut the ribbon on a new 30,000-square-foot headquarters in Lexington, having moved from a building that was half that size in Cambridge.

Mark Lundstrom, BioScale’s chief executive officer, noted that his company, had it persisted, might have found what it needed in Cambridge.

But then again, BioScale could very well have ended up shelling out two to three times what it is paying for its new headquarters in Lexington, he said.

Nor was it a move to the wilderness; there are a couple of other life sciences firms nearby, not to mention Shire LLC’s large and ever-expanding Lexington campus at the old Raytheon headquarters site.

The presence of other similar firms in the neighborhood is important, for it means there is more likely to be ready-made, specialized space available when it comes time to expand, Lundstrom explained.

In fact, biotech and life sciences firms occupy nearly 17 percent of the western stretch of Route 128, compared with just under 14 percent for software firms, notes Brendan Carroll, who crunches market statistics for a Boston-based commercial real estate company, Richards Barry Joyce & Partners.

Of course, there is not the cluster of restaurants, coffee shops and other amenities one finds in an urban location like Kendall Square, but Lundstrom said he rather likes the view of the woods he now has from his office window.

Moreover, the company is clearly more of a big fish in a small pond out in Lexington than it was back in Cambridge.

“We have more of an identity here in terms of having our own building,’’ Lundstrom said.

And BioScale is hardly alone. Lundstrom knows of executives at two other life sciences firms in Cambridge that are also eyeing the 128 market.

Meanwhile Curis Inc., another life sciences refugee from Cambridge, occupies 25,000 square feet on the first floor of BioScale’s Lexington headquarters, having made the move late last year.

Over the past few months, both Abpro Inc. and T2 Biosystems moved their operations from Cambridge to Lexington, taking up another 30,000 square feet.

“There is still a very large appetite for high quality biotech space in Lexington and Waltham,’’ said Brendan Carroll, senior vice president of research at Richards Barry Joyce & Partners.

And John Osten, a senior vice president at Jones Lang LaSalle, is working with a pair of life sciences firms that, between the two, are looking at nearly 80,000 square feet of space in Burlington.

For that matter, Biogen Idec’s Weston headquarters, which will empty out over the next two years as its new Cambridge buildings come on line, may prove attractive to other life sciences operations as well, noted Windham-Bannister from the Life Sciences Center.

So what to make of Biogen Idec’s move?

There’s certainly fodder for speculation, but, in the end, it appears to be an anomaly rather than the reversal of the big life sciences migration out to 128.

The company says its decision to move back to Cambridge was made by the new chief executive officer, who wanted all operations, both executive and research, close together.

Biogen Idec had kept its researchers in Cambridge, but had moved its executive suite, from marketing to managers, out to Weston. That meant daily shuttling back and forth between Weston and Cambridge for meetings, said spokeswoman Naomi Aoki.

While the traffic on Route 128 is notorious, highway congestion wasn’t a factor in the move, Aoki said.

So here’s one interpretation: Biogen Idec is a big company, with the luxury of being able to pick and choose where it wants to do business - and pay a premium for it if need be.

And given plans that involve the construction of two new buildings in Cambridge, there is definitely going to be a premium paid here.

Not many companies can do that, whether it’s the life sciences sector or the insurance industry.

But it represents an anomaly, not a trend.

Scott Van Voorhis can be reached at sbvanvoorhis@hotmail.com.