Connecticut has a growing reputation as a cradle of innovation in the field of bioscience.
People might think of the companies being spun out of research at Yale and UConn, or the burgeoning medical devices industry developing along the I91 corridor.
Now New London wants in on that action. Partnering with a promising start-up business, the city is planning a biotech incubator.
Jim O’Malley is standing outside a small building on Howard Street in New London, just across the tracks from the Fort Trumbull area. O’Malley is one of the founders of Myometrics, the company that wants to make this property, owned by the New London Development Corporation into its new home.
"It’s got a fair amount of internal damage so what they’re offering me is for an abatement on the rent if I go and come back in here and refit the building for what we need it for, then we’re going to sign a five year agreement to move in here. Basically it’s almost as if it was an empty shell at this point, but based on what they’ll give me back in return it’s a very good agreement, and I think it really reflects to some extent a lot of the things I’ve seen coming into New London, that the city is ready to help people come in."
O’Malley used to work for Pfizer in a group that researched muscle diseases – then two years ago the pharma giant axed the program and he was laid off.
"I didn’t really see much point in going to another pharmaceutical company when the whole industry’s in contraction. I mean actually there was a muscle group at Wyeth which I was thinking of and I would ended up finding myself right back in the same place again. And I think that’s the other thing in a career, sometimes if you do want to go it alone, the opportunity doesn’t really ever present itself, and then suddenly it’s there – and when it is then you’ve really got to recognize it for that."
And so he and two other partners decided to go into business for themselves. Funding the expensive process of drug research largely with severance cash from Pfizer, they’ve done the initial work to develop compounds for four different therapeutic areas – improving bone density around dental implants, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, Huntington’s Disease and Cachexia, an often fatal muscle wasting disorder. They’re now at the stage where they need more extensive lab facilities. New London is currently home to just one other small biotech, LifePharms, but O’Malley says the city is on the verge of a unique opportunity to leverage its big advantage – its workforce.
"Pfizer is going to contract again, there’s no doubt about that – they’ve already publicly said that 9,000 jobs are coming off their total global roll. I think that this is the time, because it won’t happen again, once these people leave they’re gone forever, they’re not coming back – this is the time to create an environment for those who have an entrepreneurial bent and who want to give it a shot, that if we’ve got some facilities here at all they’ll be able to come and start filling them."
In thinking about how to foster that environment he’s found a willing partner in the Southeastern Connecticut Enterprise Region, or SECTER. Annie Chambers is director of loan programs there.
"Small business is the backbone of economic development, and so how can we make it enticing for small businesses that have a possibility of developing as medium to large businesses – how do we entice them to come to New London and what can we offer? And an incubator is just one of the possibilities."
The incubator would be a building where small biotech firms could have their own space, but share facilities that are expensive to set up such as lab space and animal rooms. Chambers is in the process of writing a grant application for federal stimulus cash to fund what could be a pricey undertaking.
"Any property we look at needs improvements, any businesses that we look at are going to need some working capital, they’re going to need perhaps some rent relief while they get up and get started and get going."
The depths of a recession might not seem to be the most promising time to start such a venture, but Chambers says there’s a lot to be said for running with the ball right now.
"I think with real estate being the way it is, I think with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and with the political climate as it is, this might be the best time to try to do it."
If the funding and the talent is forthcoming New London hopes it could follow in New Haven's footsteps as a center of excellence for biotech.