Bedford Puts out its Welcome Mat for Life Sciences Companies

Bedford is emerging as a “burgeoning life science hub,” according to one trade publication. That reputation was validated and solidified at a recent virtual program sponsored by the Middlesex 3 Coalition and the New England Real Estate Journal.

The webinar featured a component entitled “the life sciences ecosystem,” with leaders in the industry as well as in health care and real estate explaining why companies locate and expand around here. Later in the agenda was testimony from panelists on choosing and building life sciences sites in Bedford. Both segments focused almost entirely on the town.

The theme that kept recurring during more than two hours of presentation was the proactive role of Bedford town government.

One scenario, in particular, has become legendary: a February 2020 meeting by the side of Middlesex Turnpike with representatives of Ultragenyx, the pharmaceutical manufacturer, and Bedford Town Manager Sarah Stanton and Economic Development Director Alyssa Sandoval.

Gil Stevens, the firm’s executive director for global engineering, recounted the steps leading up to the site decision. “Our needs dramatically changed at the end of 2019,” he said, and “one of the amazing things over the course of this project was the speed with which we were able to do it. We started from scratch on Jan. 2.”

“There was a list of over 100 sites,” added Peter Carty, senior director for corporate real estate. _ The firm ultimately “negotiated pretty rigorously with four finalists. The opportunity to customize our manufacturing site was really important, rather than leasing or buying a box that already existed.”

Stevens said Bedford officials “promised tremendous commitment to what we wanted to do,” and “one of the most compelling parts of the decision was the amount of support immediately there.” That was manifested on Feb. 24, he said, “on the side of the road at Bedford Woods, looking at a bunch of trees.”

“That was just phenomenal,” he continued, adding that a few days later, “our entire company was quarantined. The whole company was really thrilled with our ability to pull that off under the conditions.”

Scott Weiss, vice president of development for the Gutierrez Co., which owns the Bedford Woods site, cracked, “We were lucky we were on the side of the road so we didn’t have a super spreader.” He said, “We are thrilled about the partnership with the town.”

“This project represented the first internal gene therapy manufacturing,” Stevens related. “A number of our portfolio is in clinical trials and we saw the need to internalize manufacturing. It’s critically important to us as we go after these rare diseases where currently there are no therapies. The faster we can get development and commercialization, the faster we can help our patients, and – our own facilities with our own capabilities and our own staff help to drive that.”

“It’s a beautiful site, and that was really important in terms of corporate branding,” Carty said. “We were already established in Woburn so we could recruit talented people. And you had already done a great job in attracting life science companies.” He said the fact that Sandoval and Stanton were involved “gave us a higher level of comfort.” He also noted Stanton’s professional connections in Cambridge, where she formerly was budget director.

Stanton pointed out that Bedford “has changed the zoning proactively for life science enterprises to allow them by right in industrial zoning districts. A new job training program with Burlington offers free training to those interested in starting careers in life science and healthcare. Bedford has a fantastic permitting team and economic development director who work closely with companies to get them started.”

Stevens said the Bedford Woods site was “shovel ready – that was a key criterion. He applauded the work Gutierrez did with the town to enable that site under the state law known as Chapter 43D, which enables expedited permitting. Tom Lauzon, vice president of manufacturing, said “from a pharmaceutical perspective, there’s nothing more exciting than building your first manufacturing facility.”

“Even with all that planning there were things that came up,” said Carty. “It’s a cold part of the country (Ultragenyx is based in California) so there were strings attached to the site—at one point I thought Scott was making stuff up. But they just jumped on any kind of issue.”

Jay Sturdivant of Burlington’s Erland Construction said, “The number one thing is a business-friendly town. Our clients know exactly what they want and more importantly, they know exactly what they don’t want.” He added that firms in the fields of gene therapy, robotics, and artificial intelligence have unique infrastructure needs, “so it is important to know what clients are looking for.”

“These are unique and specialized facilities,” Weiss said. He noted that gene therapy production of medicines is “really highly specialized unique materials and processes and requires a range of considerations on sustainability and efficient production.”

“We have come in with an existing building that we are going to be repositioning for life sciences, and the town has been very encouraging and flexible,” said Reid Joseph, executive vice president of RedGate, the real estate investment firm which recently acquired the campus at 100 Crosby Drive.

“We are committed to life sciences here. We have a 300,000-square-foot building we will reposition. Continued growth in this cluster is exciting for us,” Joseph said. “We are looking to add additional density. We were hearing the stories about how helpful they have been.”

He pointed out that “speed has been critical. Companies are trying to get research out there on clinical trials. The town understands that and is willing to work with you—owner, developer, and tenant. It is exciting and very helpful.”

Unlike office workers, “The life sciences industry can’t go remote full-time. People need to be in labs,” Joseph observed. Lauzon added, “That’s true from a manufacturing perspective. You are going to have three shifts, seven days a week.” He also foresees the need for warehousing and cleaning services, which also have economic development implications for the Route 3 corridor.

Joseph said 100 Crosby is “a building with amenities,” and Lauzon noted that “one of the things we looked at was amenities – restaurant, gyms. Attracting a younger talent pool to the area especially was important to us.”

“Speed is especially important to gene therapy,” agreed Onur Kas, head of the gene therapy vector core at UCM on Preston Court. “If you really are trying to deliver patient value you need to be first for this new modality.”

“We started building our gene-therapy capability at the beginning of the pandemic,” Kas recounted. “Sarah’s team adapted and incorporated these virtual inspections and flexibility to get us running in the middle of the pandemic, which was crucial. You not only need to build. You need to grow also. I’m very happy with the town of Bedford and the ease and flexibility that they provided.”

Kus explained that, in a conventional laboratory, “we reduce a certain protein, purify it, and make it safe to inject into humans to treat the disease every three months. But in gene therapy, it’s one injection and you change the code in your cells and enable your own cells to become the factory of the drug. This is the promise. It completely changes the business – how companies like us can create patient value changes.”

He continued, “We are capitalizing on thousands of years to engineer viruses and use them as our delivery vehicle, safe viruses engineered to have this key piece of genetic information to deliver a cure.”

“The pandemic proved our industry is essential,” Kus asserted. “Accelerating with what we know to deliver these much-needed drugs to rare-disease patients now requires gong to larger and larger manufacturing sizes as we solve how to increase productivity. And there is no better place to do it because we have access to all here.”

Joseph said corporate interest is accelerating. “They’re more excited about being in the region, where people want to live and work, which is exciting.” Kus agreed that “suburban sites come up as a positive, especially for their school systems.”

Jeanne LeClair, director of business development for the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, said the labor pool is critical, and that transcends Boston and Cambridge. Middlesex 3 “has done a great job marketing its area as a community of corporations.” Her agency sometimes helps launch “a small company with a new idea,” using Moderna, Inc., as a 2011 example.

Joseph concurred. “The labor pool is so critical to what these companies are doing. The other is commitment—you are in a town that is committed. It is exciting to bring all the pieces together.

She also noted that “community colleges have been a specific focus of ours.” Lauzon said his firm has developed a relationship with Middlesex Community College.

Mike Rosenberg can be reached at mike@thebedfordcitizen.org, or 781-983-1763