June 25, 2008

On June 16, at Boston's Joslin Diabetes Center, Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick signed into law the state's landmark Life Sciences Initiative (LSI), then immediately flew to San Diego with legislative leadership to tout the plan in front of the world's biotechnology industry at the BIO 2008 International Convention.

Unprecedented in scope in the annals of Massachusetts politics and policy, the LSI - through which the state will invest at least $1 billion in its surging life sciences sector over the next decade - is expected to strengthen the Commonwealth's global leadership position in such fields as biotechnology and medical devices.

Just as important, the law seeks and is expected to spur bold advances in novel areas of scientific discovery, such as stem cell and RNAi research.

The Massachusetts LSI was a hot topic at San Diego's BIO 2008, held in the backyard of one of the Commonwealth's foremost competitors for life sciences business. Joined by Senate President Therese Murray and House Speaker Salvatore DiMasi, Governor Patrick talked up the LSI at a number of BIO 2008-related venues, including a jam-packed event at the Massachusetts Pavilion on the BIO exhibit hall floor (see photo), a "Town Hall" informational session at a nearby hotel, and a reception for industry leaders at PETCO Park, home of the San Diego Padres.

While there has been considerable enthusiasm about the LSI generally, it is clear that fleshing out LSI program particulars has now become the next big challenge for both government and the life sciences sector. Questions still abound about program eligibility and access. The MBC, which played a major role in the LSI's formation and passage, is dedicated to the LSI's final fitting, roll-out and implementation. "There is a lot of hard work on the LSI behind us, and a lot of hard work ahead," commented John Heffernan, MBC's Vice President of Policy and External Affairs. "The best news is that our state government has remained consistent in its commitment to the life sciences sector, and we look forward to working with leadership to justify this expenditure of taxpayer dollars, which we are confident will lead directly to a stronger economy and better health care."

The LSI calls for spending hundreds of millions of dollars on infrastructure, including construction of a facility at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester dedicated to RNAi research pioneered by the University's Nobel laureate, Dr. Craig Mello. That stream of funding will also create what is expected to be the world's foremost stem cell bank and registry, established as a collaboration among UMass, Harvard and MIT.

Industry is most excited about nine tax benefits and incentives that will be made available to qualifying companies showing a demonstrable job-growth profile (for handy one-page digest of LSI highlights, click here). Benefits include an increase in the investment tax credit (ITC, to 10%) and an extension of the net operating loss carryforward (from five to fifteen years). For the first time qualifying life sciences companies can opt to redeem and monetize state tax credits (R&D, ITC) for up to 90% of face value, and the LSI establishes a 100% tax credit for FDA User Fees, also redeemable for cash if the company so chooses.

Small companies and research institutions are carefully eyeing $250 million in LSI grants and loans. One fund (named after the aforementioned Nobel Prize winner Craig Mello) will provide equity investments of up to $250,000 to small life sciences companies. Other features include an SBIR matching fund and grants to help financially strapped graduate students so that they may continue to live and do their great work in the Commonwealth.

As is often the case, the Legislature wrote LSI language specifically in some instances, more broadly in others. The MBC is committed to working with the administration and with the Life Sciences Center - the LSI's lead authority - to fine tune programmatic language and details.

Most important, the MBC plans to produce a guide - revisable as necessary - that will help its members navigate through the LSI's various programs and opportunities. A first edition of this guide should be available by mid-summer. Interested parties should contact the MBC with questions or comments.

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