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September 24, 2019

A strategic plan for Connecticut’s bioscience sector points the way to the future

Paul Pescatello is the executive director of the Connecticut Bioscience Growth Council.
Dawn Hocevar, president and CEO, BioCT
This story was published in Hartford Business Journal's "Doing Business in Connecticut 2019" publication, which showcases the state's many economic development opportunities, and the attributes that make Connecticut a special place to work, live and play. Click here to learn more
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When it comes to the business of healthcare, Connecticut is a leader in many aspects, with several nationally ranked hospitals along with leading pharmaceutical, medical device, health insurance, and biomedical firms. It is also home base for the University of Connecticut and Yale, which conduct world-class health research and help foster the commercialization of health-related technologies.

Now, the state is working to up its game in the bioscience sector so it can remain competitive as other states continue to grow their bioscience ecosystems at a fast clip. A strategic plan produced by a consortium of the state’s major bioscience players urges the state to “enact more pro-business policies, tax regimes, and investments” to help boost the industry. “We need to recruit more companies, support the startups, develop the infrastructure, … and create more jobs.”

The state’s bioscience sector already has a solid base that includes more than 2,500 companies, employing almost 39,000 people. Industry multipliers mean that each new job in the industry results in an additional 1.33 jobs created. Connecticut ranks fourth in the nation for bioscience patents per 1,000 people, 54% of venture capital is invested in bioscience, and 80% of all academic research and developments take place in that field. Yet in an increasingly competitive marketplace, it’s critical to keep growing the industry, according to Dawn Hocevar, president and CEO of New Haven-based BioCT.

Hocevar has been fielding inquiries ever since she and others crafted the strategic plan. Supporters of the multi-pronged proposal feel confident that implementation of its recommendations could create 6,000 new jobs and expand the state’s bioscience industry by about 25%.

Among the plan’s key recommendations are developing and recruiting new companies, increasing incubator and lab space, and retaining science, technology, engineering and math graduates.

“I’m proud we were able to pull in key stakeholders to put together the plan,” said Hocevar. “The ongoing results have been extremely positive.”

Citing major changes in the way the state is doing business, Hocevar said she sees a “tremendous amount of collaboration within the state that I haven’t seen before.” 

“This is the time for this industry to really grow due to this collaboration. In the past, there were silos. That’s not the case now,” she said. “I get calls every day from industries asking how they can help with economic development. They want to participate in the strategic plan. I get them involved where there is already activity going on. I listen to what they have to say. Instead of reinventing the wheel, we’re trying to connect the different entities that have similar ideas. It’s going very well.”

Hocevar noted that Connecticut Innovations, the state’s strategic venture capital arm, invests in early stage companies and helps them become successful. As they do so, jobs will expand.

She said the industry had lost jobs over the past few years, citing downsizing by Bristol-Myers Squibb in 2015 and Pfizer in 2011. But she noted positive recent developments, like Sema4 moving 400 jobs from New York to Stamford and two major IPOs by bioscience companies Arvinas and BioHaven.

Building on strengths

Paul Pescatello is head of the Connecticut Bioscience Growth Council, made up of representatives from Connecticut Business & Industry Association (CBIA) member companies with biotech, pharmaceutical, and bioscience-related interests. 

He said when it comes to bioscience, Connecticut has a lot of advantages. “We have such a rich base of scientific knowledge and skill in biology and chemistry, but also in the expertise needed to bring a drug from idea to FDA approval – scientists, people who manage the labs, and people who enroll patients and conduct clinical trials. We have a fantastic pool of educated people, a terrific workforce, so I think that’s a huge attraction.”

The state also has a strategic geographical advantage. “We have easy access to some of the big bioscience players in Cambridge and Boston, but companies can do business here at a much lower cost. We often berate ourselves, saying that things are expensive in Connecticut, but compared to our competitor locations like Boston, San Diego and San Francisco, when it comes to housing and education costs, we’re a bargain.”

The contributions of Yale and UConn are another huge asset. “Almost every, if not every, Connecticut company has its roots in research and discoveries coming out of those two universities, so maintaining contact with them is essential. It’s important to know what’s going on in those academic labs – and to connect [their innovative startups] with venture capital players so they get what they need when they transition from the university nonprofit setting to for-profit ventures.”

Each of the two universities has its own areas of focus, a function of the different professors who have been recruited, he explained. “At Yale, stem cell research started 10 years ago, and now I think Yale is cutting edge on cancer stem cells; that’s almost become a separate area of stem cells,” he said.

The stem cell work being undertaken on the UConn Health campus – related to genomics, multiple sclerosis, chromosomal diseases, reprogramming human cells to act like stem cells, and more – “is another area of great promise. I think these two big players are working well together and complement each other.”

In addition to representing the biotech and biopharma industries at the state level, Pescatello serves as president and CEO of the New England Biotech Association, a mutually beneficial arrangement for all involved. “I think just being linked in to all that is going on in New England certainly helps Connecticut a lot,” he said. “It’s quite an ecosystem, which is very valuable to our Connecticut companies.”

Asked about the achievements he’s happiest about over the past year, he pointed to legislation that exempts venture capital income from state income tax, calling it “a huge competitive advantage over what other states are doing.”

Another area of focus is attracting and retaining startup companies, and encouraging bioscience firms to build labs in Connecticut. While the state already offers excellent incentives and tax credits, Pescatello thinks more can be done to retain mid-cycle companies past the startup stage. “In the strategic plan, we’re trying to do what we can to increase the square footage of lab space that’s available. That’s a big driver of getting those companies to grow here and not leave,” he said.

Building on the vibrancy of the state’s bioscience sector is vital to Connecticut’s economy, he said, “because it really plays to our strengths and our future. The industry pays very good salaries and offers great jobs with benefits, but it’s also about innovation and creativity, and that’s something you can’t import.”

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