Q&A with Kevin O'Sullivan
Kevin O'Sullivan is President & CEO of Massachusetts Biomedical Initiatives (MBI) in Worcester. He sat down to chat with MassBio about incubators and the industry.
Q. Massachusetts Biomedical Initiatives (MBI) celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2009 and has been recognized as one of the most outstanding laboratory incubators in the nation. As the MBI’s CEO, how do you measure the success at MBI?
A: Clearly for us it’s about how many companies graduate out of our facilities, how many jobs they create, and what kind of healthcare innovation these companies are producing. So, when I look at a global view of the last ten years, as an example, a successful company for MBI is when they leave our facilities and are at least five years old and operating independently. When I look at that track record over the last decade, we have 31 companies who have created over 350 jobs, and we have companies working in really diverse areas, like in diabetes, proteins, stem cells and animal models. To me, that’s a real sign of growth and success and a reflection on our state where innovation and brains are our products. We also measure success through our laboratories. We have 37 operating labs in three sites in Worcester and we’re at 95 percent capacity so I think that shows success as well. That’s something that we’re mindful of all the time - being able to provide the facility and support services for small start-up companies here in the state. The most important thing for us is that the vast majority of these companies remain in Massachusetts and continue to grow here.
Q. In your years at MBI, what has changed in the biotechnology environment in Massachusetts and in Worcester?
A: I think in one word it’s collaboration. That has been the key to our success and I think, in large part, the key to Massachusetts’ biotechnology success. Everyone seems to be able to leave their swords and shields outside the door and work together, whether you’re in science or academia or business or government, and that’s an important factor that we need to understand and continue to strive for. We’re in a new global economy and clearly that’s changed Massachusetts; we’re competing on a world stage. The other thing that I’ve seen is an incredibly vibrate biomedical corridor between Cambridge and Boston and Worcester and everywhere in between. To me, that is very, very important so that we have this long term view of innovation spread throughout the entire state. The other thing that I think has been incredibly important to us is how governments—local, state and federal, in particular on the state level—how strong their support has been and grown over these years. I remember 25 years ago when we got going it was Governor [Michael] Dukakis who helped us start the Massachusetts Biotechnology Research Park in Worcester and today Governor [Deval] Patrick and Lt. Governor [Tim] Murray continue in that spirit. All of the support we received over all these years in between, from administrations and legislators. That’s key and that’s how we’ve grown the biotechnology environment in a successful way in Massachusetts and in Worcester.
Q. Among your successful MBI graduates, what characteristics stand out in their success?
A: Number one, they have to have a strong business and science plan. You need to have a road map. We all know that changes as the company grows but you have to have that in place. Secondly, you need to have outstanding science innovation that people and that investors clearly see the need. Number three, I would say you have to have a solid financial base in place. Along with that you’ve got to be thrifty. In other words you’ve got to raise your money beforehand. It does you no good to be looking back and trying to raise money as you’re going along. I think that has been a key to success for our successful companies. You have to have a strong work ethic as the founder and the person that pulls a great team of science and business expertise working together. You have to have the drive, a will to succeed against all odds. Start-ups, for the most part, tend to fail. But when you put all of these pieces in place, and we do that at MBI, our success rate is about 73% which means that we try to adhere to those standards. The last piece I would say is timing and good luck. There are a lot of people who’ve had great science and great plans and have not succeeded.
Q. Why would a start-up opt for an incubator setting versus a traditional laboratory setting?
A: Well, when you look at an incubator that is run well, like MBI, it’s small, efficient, affordable lab space – that’s number one. You don’t need large amounts of lab space. You have one or two people that need a small, say 200 square foot lab. That’s efficiency and cost control. In our combined three facilities we average about twenty companies and about 100 employees at any given time. Within our facilities it’s a cluster of similar minded people, so you’re not out there alone. You’re working amongst people who are like-minded in the science field. I never look at each one of them as competitive, but more as collaborative. You’re around people at all times—whether it’s at the water cooler or having lunch together—and you can share some of the excitement, the ups and downs. Also within a facility like MBI, you have shared equipment so you share your costs. Then there’s a strong support network to help the companies grow and succeed. You know a lot of time companies will come in and say “do you know somebody in a particular area?” or “can you find somebody at the medical school, or the veterinary school or the engineering school to help me?” and that support mechanism is in place when you’re in an incubator versus if you’re out there all alone.
Q. What will MBI look like in 5 years?
A: I see us continuing to grow our core niche business in providing small, efficient laboratory space offerings for start-up life science companies. That’s our mission and that’s our base for biomedical and biotechnology-based companies. I also see us expanding upon our biomedical base and exploring energy and sustainability efforts like biofuels. I think that’s an area that we have to continue to keep our eye on and provide support offerings. One other large area that I see over the next five years building upon is the whole biocomputing area. There is a whole new bioscience world out there, data mining and software engineering and building upon models to better understand this myriad of data. There’s an explosion of data out there, and it is just taking too long and costing too much within our science and healthcare field. I think that the biocomputing and bioinformatics space is an area that we’ll continue to grow. Also, we believe that our biotech specialty companies will play a greater role in another area that I think is really going to stand out by looking at health care efficiencies in terms of cost, delivery and health care outcomes especially with the way healthcare reform is being implemented. One other area I look at is this whole collaboration with academic, science, government and business. It’s important that we continue to strive and understand that brains and innovation are our products in Massachusetts and I think that as long as we continue to understand this collaborative approach that we need to take, we are going to continue to succeed. Lastly, I see us continuing to build upon these biomedical corridors that have been established in Massachusetts. We are a Massachusetts-based organization and although we happen to have our home in Worcester and Central Massachusetts, we see our role as far greater in terms of supporting other initiatives and efforts whether it’s on the North Shore or in Springfield or down in Southeastern Mass. We’re within all of the state-wide academic centers like UMass and, that is something we are going to play a greater role in supporting successful efforts throughout the entire state. And we always need to keep in mind that we are all in this together.