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Berkshire Life Sciences Industry Wants To See State Funding

With Massachusetts putting fresh focus on its life sciences initiative with grant funding, companies in the western end of the state hope to see some of it. 

Pat Muraca formed NanoMolecularDX in Lee, Massachusetts to use screening technologies to detect various types of cancers and diseases.

“What we have here in our validation and immunohistochemistry laboratory, it’s a very specialized science, and we use these robotic instruments to be able to perform certain types of validation tests for antibodies, and different types of diagnostic tests that we will be able to use once we become certified,” Muraca says.

In June, Governor Charlie Baker spoke at the BIO International Convention in San Diego about the life sciences sector in Massachusetts. The convention comes to Boston next year.

“We need to do more with respect to the pipeline. We need more folks coming into the field. We need more folks in the workforce development area. And that’s going to be a major place, I believe, that will cultivate private-public partnerships going forward,” Baker says.

Baker announced a proposal to fund $500 million over five years as part of the state’s life sciences initiative, including up to $295 million in capital improvements and $150 million for job-creating tax incentives.

“The brick and mortar piece of this is over. It’s really investing in the technology, that’s really where … Governor Patrick was excellent at building brick and mortar for life sciences – you can see that in the Berkshires with the $9 million grant for the Innovation Center,” Muraca says. “Now it’s not brick and mortar any more, it’s technology, and how do we keep pace with the rest of the country and the world in the state of Massachusetts.”

Muraca, referring there to former Governor Deval Patrick, says he hopes to attract some of the $33 million in grants and loans for small-to-medium life sciences businesses the state will offer.

Patrick Larkin, director of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative's Innovation Institute, admits life sciences is not exactly what the Berkshires is known for – especially this time of year, with the region’s arts tourism season in full swing.

Larkin spoke at a roundtable in June in Pittsfield about how the Berkshires can overcome economic limitations. He says a region can’t capitalize on everything.

“It was almost like a la carte, you know, I would like to be like that. We would like to build a biotech cluster here in the region. That’s not how it works,” Larkin says. “There are indigenous strengths that gravitate around economic activities.”  

State Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier, a Pittsfield Democrat, says the Berkshires isn’t limited to one successful sector.

“We need to play to our strengths and certainly a major strength of the Berkshires is advanced manufacturing,” Farley-Bouvier says.

Larkin agrees, but says the region hasn’t reached its potential.

“When you look at what’s going on at Crane and Company, or General Dynamics, or Blue Q, or Chamberlain Group, these are nodes of innovation taking place that need to be leveraged and exploited,” Larkin says.

Many of those companies are in manufacturing, but to get life sciences off the ground, Muraca – like Governor Baker – points to professional development.

But we have to be able to look at the workforce that was here. And the workforce that was here is very well trained. And workforce redevelopment is the most important piece of this whole thing,” Muraca says.

Muraca’s company helps employees go back to school for job training.

“They may not be biologists or they may have very little experience in biology, but you can always train them to do certain types of tasks,” Muraca says. “We have to maximize on what we have here, but we have to maximize on what we have here to be able to attract people to the area to build life sciences.”

Muraca points to the nascent Berkshire Innovation Center as an example.

This is actually Muraca’s third biotech company in the Berkshires in the last 20 years. He pulled one former company, Nuclea Biotechnologies, out of the Berkshire Innovation Center in 2014.

The center is way behind schedule and faces a funding gap.

Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer says there are still some moving parts and negotiations are ongoing.

“We hope that we will have some news to announce about the Berkshire Innovation Center in the very near future,” Tyer says.

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