From an economic and business-climate point of view, 2016 probably couldn’t have gotten off to a better start. The year had barely dawned when General Electric, the nation’s largest industrial company, announced that it was moving its headquarters to Boston. The decision will have a substantial, tangible impact, but for a city and state whose business friendliness has at times been called into question, the move may carry an even larger symbolic significance. Rockland Trust’s “Talking Business Advice Series” asked UMass President Marty Meehan to discuss how the region can build on the GE coup, what new innovative ideas have caught his eye, and where might innovation be headed in Massachusetts.
How do you envision the city and state building on the GE success?
I think we have to reflect on the question, ‘What is our greatest asset?’ In this state, it’s not petroleum or minerals or agricultural products, it’s our people and their substantial intellectual capabilities. So, at the state level, we have to continue to invest in education and we need to urge the federal government to invest in education and also to get much more serious about funding research. Since the recession of 2008, federal funding for research at colleges and universities has grown sluggishly; funding has actually diminished when the effects of inflation are taken into consideration. That should be a particular concern for us in Massachusetts, where three universities—Harvard, MIT, and UMass—have research portfolios in excess of $600 million and rely on federal funding to conduct scientific inquiry that is important to the world and fuels the state’s innovation economy. Cell phones, GPS technology, super computers, and the Internet itself all flowed out of federally funded research, as did the gene-silencing work of Nobel laureate Craig Mello of UMass Medical School. So the nation, and this state in particular, needs to keep brainpower at the top of the agenda. I think it was very telling that in announcing the move, GE CEO Jeff Immelt said he wanted to come to an ‘ecosystem that shares our aspirations.’
Why isn’t research enjoying the same level of support in Washington that it once had?
I certainly think the partisan acrimony we’ve all seen in Washington has something to do with it, and I also worry about a growing tendency to look at things from a short-term perspective. When I served in Congress, there were great champions of federal funding for research, and while we instantly think of Democrats like Ted Kennedy, there also were Republican leaders like Bob Dole and Howard Baker who understood that research was important from a social and economic point of view. They also thought in terms of generations, not just election cycles. That hasn’t been as apparent in recent years, although this year’s funding increase for the National Institutes for Health was very welcomed. But we need to establish an enduring and comprehensive commitment to research if we don’t want our time to be remembered as the period when the march of science sputtered and stalled.
What lessons we can extract from GE’s decision?
I think there are a number of lessons—and they are important ones. For starters, we need to think about what’s next and about attracting other major corporations and employers to come to Massachusetts. We’ve won Super Bowls and World Series in recent years, but it’s been a while since we’ve had a win like GE, so we need to have a ‘let’s-win-again’ mindset. In Governor Charlie Baker and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, we have two key leaders who can really work with our legislative and business leaders, and I think we saw the power in that. We also need to make sure that we have the education and physical infrastructure Massachusetts requires to maintain its innovation edge. We need to realize that the major, coordinated push that the city and state made to attract GE was very powerful—and ultimately successful—and we have to replicate that effort when other opportunities arise.
In the area of business and innovation, are there outside-the-box ideas that have caught your eye recently?
We live at a time when boundaries are constantly being pushed, but if you want to look at an example of an imaginative business approach being matched with truly imaginative science, I’m very impressed with what Bill Gates did with the creation of his Breakthrough Energy Coalition. This was something Bill launched last year on the eve of the United Nations conference on climate change. The idea was to make sure that audacious ideas in the quest to create affordable ‘miracle energy’ to fight climate change don’t wither and die because they lack adequate funding. We’re talking about solar-chemical technology and flow batteries, things that have real scientific legitimacy but are in the “Valley of Death” stage: post government-research-funding, but before the point where traditional investors may be ready to commit. Bill has enlisted some very influential people—people like Mark Zuckerberg, Jeff Bezos, George Soros, and Richard Branson—in this effort. I think that’s fascinating and very promising and I hope that some of the companies that develop these energy miracles that we need so much are based in Massachusetts. And I wouldn’t mind if UMass technology is involved! But you really have to commend him for this idea and be so very impressed with what clearly is his extraordinary view of citizenship—and one that truly has a global scale.
Where is innovation headed in the near future in Massachusetts and what do you see on the horizon in terms of emerging technologies that could have an impact on the economy, both locally and globally?
There are a number of areas where Massachusetts is poised for growth, where we have cutting-edge research and other natural advantages: big data, digital healthcare, cyber-security, robotics, flexible electronics, marine science and technology, renewable/clean energy and other areas of advanced manufacturing all have tremendous potential. These are areas where you already see research moving into the commercialization phase and start-up companies emerging. Our global leadership in the life sciences, education and technology has us poised to become an international leader in digital health care—and this is estimated to be a $32 billion market over the next decade.
Similarly, our strong public/private partnerships and our culture of entrepreneurship positions Massachusetts to be a major player in the emerging global market in flexible electronics. Because of its expertise in advanced manufacturing, our flagship campus in Amherst was chosen by the federal government to anchor a high-powered flexible electronics R&D team that includes Harvard, MIT, Northeastern, and UMass Lowell. Flexible electronics are high-tech sensors with numerous military and non-military applications. Their uses range from monitoring a child’s glucose levels to providing battlefield commanders key data about the stress and fatigue levels of troops in the field. Sensors can also monitor the status of structural components that pose dire threats when they fail: rotor blades or bridge supports, for example. This partnership—advanced and supported by state government—places us in an excellent position to become a leader in the emerging global market, estimated to have a value of $250 billion over the next decade. So, this is a perfect example of the game plan of the future: our research universities and government working together to keep Massachusetts at the head of the economic and innovation curve.
For generations, people around the world have looked at our hospitals, our universities, our cultural and financial institutions and have regarded Massachusetts with admiration and respect. I think we can certainly work together and continue to play that kind of leadership role.
Final question, how are you finding your first year as president of UMass?
I don’t think there are many greater honors than becoming president of your alma mater, and I think anyone would feel that way. But for me, it runs a lot deeper than just that. I grew up in a small house in a hard-edged section of Lowell. My parents didn’t have the opportunity to go to college. My father worked as a newspaper compositor and supplemented what he earned at The Lowell Sun by working as a guard at the county jail. My mother stayed at home to take care of us. UMass was the beacon of opportunity for us. I graduated from UMass Lowell and four of my siblings did as well—and so many of our friends and relatives graduated from a UMass campus. I’m also the first undergraduate alumnus to serve as president of the University of Massachusetts system. So much of what I have been able to achieve, whether that has been serving as a prosecutor, serving in Congress, as chancellor of UMass Lowell, and now as president, I owe to the University of Massachusetts. So, it is in the best sense of the word, personal. And I know I am only one of nearly 500,000 UMass graduates who feel that way. This is a university that literally transforms people’s lives. I feel like I’m a steward, I’m a protector of this university, which means I get up every day ready to fight for a cause I truly believe in. And, there is no better feeling than that. So, in short, I’m really enjoying this year. I feel like I have made a very long journey, and I am eager to see where the road leads.