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Homegrown heroes: Local organizations changing the world with science

Why Boston is a hotbed for scientific achievement — and what we can do better.

 “Boston is one of the few places I have been where when you walk home after dinner, the casual couple you see on the street is more than likely talking about science,” says Thomas Westerling-Bui, director of scientific strategy at Aiforia, a Cambridge-based technology company that enables deep learning AI for image analysis.“You just need to park yourself in a corner in Boston and say you are a scientist and you will find a buddy.”


What is it about Boston that draws such significant scientific minds to the area? Read on to find out.  

What scientists see in Boston

Thomas Westerling-Bui, director of scientific strategy at Aiforia

Westerling-Bui moved to Boston 12 years ago from Finland. He had interviews lined up in a few cities, but Boston was the only place he had more than one potential opportunity. He started his U.S career with a fellowship with Harvard Medical School and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. From the beginning, he was struck by the way different groups across Boston came together to tackle scientific questions. That sort of collaboration doesn’t happen everywhere, he notes.

In his experience, area experts are generally willing to help you, not just with discovery, but with bringing an idea from the lab to the market. If you don’t have the backing of an experienced network, you will make mistakes, and those mistakes can slow you down and compromise your progress, he says. 

Colin Hill, cofounder of GNS Healthcare, an AI-driven precision medicine company developing a technology platform that discovers which patients respond to drugs and why, started his company at Cornell University. In 2006, he had a choice between moving his company to Boston, the San Francisco Bay Area, or Seattle. He chose Boston, in part because the area fosters a unique multidisciplinary approach.

Colin Hill, cofounder of GNS Healthcare

“Physicists coming together with biologists and computer scientists — this is where Boston shines,” Hill says.

He notes Boston companies typically take on different types of challenges than Silicon Valley organizations do — time-consuming, complicated problems in areas like biomedical innovation and robotics. This type of work makes a huge difference in people’s lives, but it doesn’t happen overnight.

Paula Ragan, CEO of X4 Pharmaceuticals in Cambridge, agrees. She has lived in Boston for most of her life and describes it as “an amazing meeting of the minds.” People here are committed to using science to solve pressing problems, but the solutions they are working on could take 10-15 years to get to market, she explains. 

Paula Ragan, CEO of X4 Pharmaceuticals

Boston innovators are driven, highly skilled, and patient. They are also creative. “We think about things other people and places don’t think about,” says Ragan, citing Life Science Cares as an example. The organization rallies life science companies and industry leaders to donate time, services, or financial resources to organizations working tto eliminate the impact of poverty in the greater Boston area.  

“The connection between life science and poverty might not be immediately clear, but poverty can negatively impact physical and mental health,” she says.  


Capital, tech, and a long list of success stories

Chris Garabedian, CEO of Xontogeny, a Boston-based life sciences accelerator that partners with scientific founders and entrepreneurs to advance technologies through clinical development says the number of Boston-area companies that have received FDA approval of a drug “has grown considerably over the last five years.” He adds Boston continues to be one of the largest recipients of grant money and clinical research support across academic research institutions and leading medical centers.

Chris Garabedian, CEO of Xontogeny

“In many ways, Boston is a microcosm of the broader worldwide biotechnology ecosystem. Very few technologies or therapeutic areas are not touched by Boston institutions or companies that are located here,” he says.

Boston’s work on next-generation sequencing tools certainly helps shape science. CRISPR/Cas9 is the fastest, cheapest, and more precise genome editing tool to date, and it was pioneered by a team from the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard.

Or take Cambridge-based biotech Moderna, dominating headlines for its progress on a potential vaccine for COVID-19, or Alnylam Pharmaceuticals, also in Cambridge, lauded for its progress exploring how RNAi therapeutics can be used to treat a wide-range of debilitating diseases. It has two approved products under its belt and five programs in late-stage clinical development.

Westerling-Bui adds it is hard to talk about Boston science without mentioning Vertex Therapeutics, a homegrown Boston company headquartered in Boston’s Innovation District. Vertex made waves for developing the first medicines to treat the underlying cause of cystic fibrosis (CF), a rare genetic disease. Westerling-Bui says Vertex encapsulates Boston science. “We are not only going for the obvious, ‘me too’ innovations, we are also tackling orphan diseases that don’t really get tackled at the same scale elsewhere,” he explains.

Careers for all
Ed Price, founder and president of Seqens North America, a Newburyport-based pharmaceutical manufacturer of new chemical entities (NCEs), active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs), and other specialty chemical products, has worked closely with many local life science companies and says the list of Mass. success stories goes on and on. While he is impressed with the access to capital in the area and local government support of the industry, he is disappointed that the high-paying jobs the field generates do not always filter down.

Ed Price, founder and president of Seqens North America

“Not as much manufacturing is taking place in Massachusetts compared to other industries,” he says. “That limits the population that can participate in the life science boom.”

Price is an active proponent for reshoring and urges pharmaceutical companies to manufacture in the U.S., rather than overseas. This would create more jobs and help people from different backgrounds realize a career in science. The field shouldn’t be reserved for the privileged — it should create opportunities for everyone, just as the application of Boston science should benefit us all.

This content was produced by Boston Globe Media's BG BrandLab and paid for by the advertiser. The news and editorial departments of The Boston Globe had no role in its production or display.

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