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‘Huge Win for Massachusetts’: Cambridge to Serve as Site for National Hub for Life Science Research

Cambridge will be the home of one of three new centers established as part of the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health.
Cambridge will be the home of one of three new centers established as part of the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health. By Marina Qu
By Jack R. Trapanick, Crimson Staff Writer

The federal government has chosen Cambridge’s Kendall Square as the site of a new hub for investment in health care and biomedical research as part of a national program launched by President Joe Biden last year.

The hub is one of three announced centers in the United States as part of the new Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health. It aims to “catch” the region’s biomedical innovations and provide them with financial support and advisory, according to Cambridge Assistant City Manager for Community Development Iram Farooq.

The Investor Catalyst Hub will help bring projects to the market, which requires business, regulation, and logistics-related expertise, according to a press release.

Governor Maura T. Healey ’92 called the placement a “huge win for Massachusetts” in the press release.

The ARPA-H initiative will support work that “traditional research or commercial activity” would not normally undertake, according to the National Institutes of Health website.

Mark A. Marino, project director of the new hub and vice president of a local health nonprofit, said efforts by both the public and private sectors have grown the state’s life sciences industry.

“This has been 10, 20, 50 years in the making,” Marino said, calling the Greater Boston area “the life science, biotech capital of the world.”

“The equivalent of the Hollywood or the Silicon Valley, that type of aura around biotech has been by design — it’s not an accident,” he said.

Since the 1970s, Kendall Square in Cambridge has become a home for biotechnology businesses from pharmaceutical giant Pfizer to budding startups. Across the river, the Longwood Medical Area in Boston — home to Harvard Medical School, the School of Public Health, and the School of Dental Medicine — is itself a long-established center of hospitals and health care research.

Other parts of the Greater Boston area, including Allston, are emerging as newer centers of biotech — with mixed feelings from affected residents as the increasing presence of labs encroaches on long-cherished neighborhood institutions.

In February, Allston’s Sound Museum closed after biotech real estate investor IQHQ purchased its building in 2021 for $50 million. Great Scott, a popular music club, closed in 2020 as more lab spaces opened in the neighborhood.

Another factor that differentiated the Boston area from other states vying for the hub was the region’s companies pursuing partnerships with local organizations and residents.

“The element that put us over the hump is that way we have made life sciences real in the lives of people,” said Reverend Willie Bodrick II, a pastor in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston who participated in pitching the state to federal officials.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic, he said, the life science sector has seen a closer relationship with the local populations surrounding it.

“The region has moved to a much, much more collaborative model and has recognized that we are actually stronger when we work together because we each have different competitive advantages that we offer,” Farooq said.

In May, federal officials came to Boston to hear local leaders pitch their state as the ideal location for the Investor Catalyst Hub.

They highlighted the case study of Chelsea, a small city to the north of Boston whose population is nearly 50 percent immigrant and two-thirds Hispanic. The city faced elevated rates of Covid during the pandemic.

City leaders, startups, and nonprofits across sectors collaborated to address the problem, “and it flipped,” said Marino.

Chelsea became “one of the gold stars of pandemic preparedness and responsiveness,” Marino said, opening the door to similar interventions for more long-standing health issues like diabetes or substance use disorder.

In Bodrick’s neighborhood, the Boston Medical Center partnered with church leaders to vaccinate thousands of residents in an area hit hard by the pandemic.

Though Bodrick praised the benefits of the hub and broader life sciences sector, he cautioned that Massachusetts would not keep its edge if it failed to keep its industry inclusive.

Bodrick warned that life sciences “historically has not been a diverse industry.” If Massachusetts loses its ability to collaborate with local organizations, “we lose our standing,” said Bodrick, an alum of the Harvard Divinity School.

“There are other cities apt to become a global leader,” he said.

Marino, the project director of the hub, said he has a “commitment for place-based hiring” within his office.

“There’s no reason that we should have billion dollar entities in the commonwealth and they don’t reflect the diversity of the commonwealth,” said Bodrick.

—Staff writer Jack R. Trapanick can be reached at jack.trapanick@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @jackrtrapanick.

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