The Past, Present & Future of Biotech in Boston

If you are familiar with the biotech industry, you know Cambridge. The small city at the center of the Great Boston Area hosts over 1,000 biotechnology-related companies. Most of these companies cluster around Kendall Square, the same block as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

If you are familiar with the biotech industry, you know Cambridge. The small city at the center of the Great Boston Area hosts over 1,000 biotechnology-related companies. Most of these companies cluster around Kendall Square, the same block as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

Over the past decade the number of biotech jobs in Boston has jumped by 37%. [1] With the rapid rise in the application of Artificial Intelligence, and given the promising future of bioinformatics and computational biology, the local biotech industry finds itself in the midst of a technological revolution.

Why Did Biotech Choose Boston?

The biotech industry in Boston can be traced back to the 1970s, when molecular biology was in its golden age. The idea of “playing with genes” however made many uncomfortable at the time. Cambridge City Council held a hearing on DNA experiments, and granted permission to Biogen, a new, local company founded by MIT Professor Phillip Sharp. Biogen was the first US firm to get the green light for genetic engineering. [2]

Bio-pharmaceutical companies quickly poured into Kendall Square, creating a well-rounded, self-vitalizing biotech ecosystem and building a global centre for biotechnology.

Academic Background

One key factor in Boston’s rise in biotechnology is the area’s academic resources, which are second to none.

Along with traditional biomedical schools such as Harvard Medical School and MIT Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, there are also a number of interdisciplinary programs combining biology and other informatic engineering subjects, such as the MIT Computational and Systems Biology Initiative (CSBi) and the Department of Biostatistics at Harvard. Other universities such as Tufts also have their own bioinformatics research groups.

Boston’s many universities are a talent pipeline, and most of the area’s biotech company founders are graduates or professors from Harvard, MIT or other top universities. [4]

Research Resources

Besides laboratories in universities, Boston’s biotech industry is also backed by labs in hospitals and large pharmaceutical companies.

Boston has three respected medical schools, two pharmaceutical schools, and three general hospitals. Having top hospitals not only provides more research facilities, but also more disease study opportunities. It is extremely difficult for example to do clinical testing and study on certain rare diseases which appear early in life and can claim the lives of 30% of patients before age five. The Boston Children’s Hospital International Health Services division treats young patients from over 100 countries every year, and these treatment cases can inform the biotech research ecosystem.

Large medical companies are becoming more dependent on smaller biotech companies in the research field. As rising costs, patent cliffs, and other factors eat into pharmaceutical industry profits, many big medical companies are turning to Boston’s innovative biotech startups to provide high-quality R&D results at lower costs. By the end of 2017, pharma giants Genzyme, Novartis, Pfizer, and Baxter had all established presences in Boston largely for this reason.

Non-technical Support

Capital is an essential element in building a vibrant industry ecosystem, and as biotech has grown so has the money behind it. General venture capital and business companies are involved, along with investors specifically targeting biotechnologies.

Fidelity Biosciences, with US$2 trillion in assets under management, was one of the earliest venture capital companies to focus on life sciences, specifically “Biopharmaceuticals, MedTech, and Healthcare IT/Services in a stage-agnostic fashion.” [5] Other capital and consulting firms in this market include Flagship Ventures, MPM Capital, Locust Walk Partners, Voisin Consulting, and Fuld & Co.

What’s more, Biotech is an area where government can support businesses. Last year Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker announced plans to invest US$500 million over the next five years in the Massachusetts Life Sciences Initiative. Baker’s predecessor, Gov. Deval Patrick, had launched a US$1 billion initial investment in biotech back in 2008. [6]

Future: Opportunities and Challenges

Respected biotechnology media company FierceBiotech publishes an annual “Fierce 15” list of the world’s most promising biotech companies, which it believes can make future breakthroughs. Cambridge area companies have taken about one-third of the spots on the list over the last five years, an achievement no other city has even approached.

(2016 Fierce 15 List includes 5 companies from Cambridge) [11]
2015 Fierce15.jpg
(2015 Fierce 15 List includes 7 companies from Cambridge) [12]

Opportunities in Gene Editing

What are the most popular areas in biotech industry today? Gene editing is undoubtedly one, especially with the discovery of the CRISPR/Cas9 Method in 2011.

CRISPR, for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats [7], is a family of DNA sequences in bacteria that contains snippets of DNA from viruses that have attacked the bacterium. These sequences play a key role in a bacterial defence system, and form the basis of a genome editing technology known as CRISPR/Cas9, which allows permanent modification of genes within organisms. [8]

With its huge application value in genome engineering, gene knockdown/activation, disease models, biomedicine and more, CRISPR technology has fostered many innovative Boston startups. Zhang Feng is the MIT Professor who first successfully applied CRISPR/cas9 in eukaryotic cells, and secured a patent for this method in 2017. [9]

Zhang co-founded Editas Medicine, one of the leading Boston companies focused on this technology. Another is CRISPR Therapeutics, which was co-founded by Emmanuelle Charpentier, another seminal figure in the field.

In 2015, Editas Medicine received US$120 million in Round B funding. Investors included Flagship Ventures (15.6%), Third Rock Ventures (15.6%), Polaris Venture Partners (15.6%), and bng0 under Bill Gates (9%). [10] In 2016, Editas Medicine became the first CRISPR gene editing company to make an IPO. Editas plans to start testing CRISPR in treating blindness, which would be the first instance of editing human genomes using CRISPR.

Other promising players in the gene editing field include Intellia and Bluebird Bio — whose stock price has risen sixfold since it went public.

Future Challenges

The biotech industry in Boston is booming, while facing potential challenges.

Life sciences research involves a heavy time commitment in the design and execution of experiments, and this can send costs skyrocketing.

Editas Medicine for example remains stuck in the preparation phase for the blindness treatment plan it announced in early 2015, although it confirmed investments of up to US$20 million at its 2016 IPO. This situation is normal in the industry. The success of a biotech company thus depends not only on its technology, but also on the confidence of the capital behind it, which will support it through such delays.

Silicon Valley is another challenge for Boston. The two regions are virtually neck-and-neck in the biotech race, but as the industry starts relying more on software, wearable devices, and big data analysis, etc, this could tilt the contest in favour of Silicon Valley, which has a definite advantage in these tech areas.


[1] Mass Bio
[3] CSBi official website
[5] F-Prime
[6] How Boston Became ‘The Best Place In The World’ To Launch A Biotech Company
[7] Sawyer E (9 February 2013). “Editing Genomes with the Bacterial Immune System”. Scitable. Nature Publishing Group. Retrieved 6 April 2015.
[8] Zhang F, Wen Y, Guo X (2014). “CRISPR/Cas9 for genome editing: progress, implications and challenges”. Human Molecular Genetics. 23 (R1): R40–6. PMID 24651067. doi:10.1093/hmg/ddu125.

Analyst: Rui Sun| Editor: Robert Tian, Michael Sarazen

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