Almost 30 years ago, even as thousands of pounds of cod, haddock and flounder were being landed every day, forward thinkers along Gloucester Harbor were pointing to marine biotechnology as a key element of the working waterfront in the nation’s oldest seaport.
Today, that vision is beginning to come into focus with the success of the Gloucester Marine Genomics Institute. Tucked between Connolly Seafood and Rose Marine, the still-new GMGI building is at once the first major “industrial” development along the harbor and a sign of hope for the future. The cutting-edge facility has a bioformatics lab, a microbe lab, a marine life research room, a DNA sequencing room with two sequencers and a robot, an imaging lab and a molecular biology lab. GMGI expects to employ 15 marine science researchers by next year and already has a strong relationship with the Gloucester Biotechnology Academy, which is in the middle of accepting its fourth class of young students.
Take a ride down Route 128, and you’ll hear about the strong growth at North Shore InnoVentures in Beverly. Several months ago, the nonprofit biotech incubator added 13,000 square feet of new labs and offices at the Cummings Center and is already looking to expand again.
The incubator counts 45 companies as members or graduates and has created more than 320 jobs, provided 209 internships and attracted more than $310 million in grants and equity funding in its 10 years. Startups are working on everything from providing clean energy to growing a replacement kidney or pancreas, InnoVentures President and CEO Chris Ilsley told a full house at last week’s North Shore Chamber of Commerce breakfast at Kernwood Country Club in Salem.
Those successes didn’t happen by accident, of course. And the continued growth of the sprawling industry relies as much on the “everyday” investments local citizens make in their community as big ticket funding from angel investors.
Ilsey noted the North Shore and Merrimack Valley are becoming increasingly attractive to those looking to found, invest in or grow technology and biotechnology companies. Part of that is the talent and support in Beverly, Gloucester and elsewhere, offering everything from office equipment to experienced, high-level business advice. Part of it is state financing, which has helped boost both CMGI and InnoVentures. Part of it is a shared sense of purpose — it was not by accident that several Gloucester business leaders made the early-morning drive to Salem to hear Ilsey speak.
But there’s another aspect to the region’s newfound popularity -- it is becoming increasingly difficult for investors and biotechnology firms to provide affordable space in the more traditional innovation hubs farther down Route 128 and in Cambridge. Workers at these companies are also finding the cost of living to be much too high when compared to innovation centers in places like Virginia, North Carolina and upstate New York. And they are growing tired of dealing with Boston traffic.
Such quality-of-life issues make places such as Beverly and Gloucester all the more attractive to investors, Ilsey said, pointing to the region’s natural beauty and good public schools and colleges as key attractions. He also noted the cost of housing is less onerous here -- if only in relation to places such as Cambridge. If local housing becomes less affordable for all levels of workers in the biotechnology field, then the Merrimack Valley and the North Shore become less attractive as alternatives to Boston and places west and south. Nothing stifles an emerging industry like the lack of available workers, and if biotech employees and graduates find they can’t afford to live here, they will simply move to other areas of the country where they can afford a home.
Gov. Charlie Baker has said he wants to add 135,000 units of housing to the state’s inventory over the next five to seven years. And that’s just a fraction of what is needed. As communities continue to grapple with their unique housing challenges, it is important to remember that solving the problem is as much a key to the region’s future as an innovation hub as new lab space.