Biotech booms in Elm City, study concludes

New Haven’s metropolitan area may be smaller than that of many other biotechnology hubs, but the Elm City’s burgeoning biotech sector holds it own when it comes to forming companies out of research advancements, according to a study by Yale’s Office of New Haven and State Affairs released Monday.

The city’s biotech sector beat out larger metro areas when comparing the efficiency with which the city is able to commercialize research, Yale Office of Cooperative Research Managing Director Jon Soderstrom said Monday in a press release issued by Market New Haven. Though some local advocacy groups questioned the direct benefits of commercial research for city residents, University and city officials said they saw no reason to reject opportunities for economic growth.

Of the nine biotech centers used in the comparison, New Haven beat out Los Angeles, Seattle-Tacoma and Philadelphia, according to the study. Although the Elm City still had a lower commercialization index than six of the studied centers — including Boston and New York — relative to its size, New Haven’s biotech appeared “to be particularly strong,” the study said.

The report comes at a time when the Elm City is redoubling efforts to promote its attractiveness as a biotech center, New Haven Chief Economic Development Administrator Kelly Murphy said. MNH, which has contracted New York-based GCI Group to launch a public relations campaign for the Elm City, is part of a larger city plan to increase the prominence of its biotech industry, she said.

“People automatically think of Cambridge and Boston [for biotech],” Murphy said. “I want them to think of New Haven. I want to hear them knocking at our door.”

New Haven has many assets that are attractive to biotech firms — such as Yale’s research labs, Yale-New Haven Hospital and the upcoming cancer center — and although the Elm City already hosts more than 50 percent of the state’s biotech companies, the city aims to take an even larger share of the market, Murphy said.

According to the study, New Haven, when separated from New York City’s biotech cluster, is one of the leading biotech centers in the nation, MNH officials said. Thirty-one companies have spun off from Yale research projects in recent years, and nine more are in the pipeline, they said. As funding increases for stem cell research in Connecticut, biotech growth is slated to increase at an even higher pace.

Ward 1 Alderman Nick Shalek ’05, whose senior essay explored New Haven’s biotech industry, said the findings were accurate and demonstrate the economic importance of biotech for the city.

“The decision by Pfizer to set up a research facility is indicative of the growing biotech industry and the confluence of federal dollars in top-notch research projects [in New Haven],” he said. “It’s really a ‘new-knowledge’ economy [and] a great opportunity for New Haven to really build its economic base.”

But Phoebe Rounds ’07, a student member of Community Organized for Responsible Development, said the expansion of biotech in the Elm City may not be good for its residents.

“The question is what sort of development is going to create benefits that actually remain,” she said. “The problem is that there’s a structural gap between the interests and skills of residents in New Haven and what the business of biotech needs. Biotech is not necessarily something that directly benefits the citizens of the city.”

CORD member Lisa Bergmann said she would like to see community benefits agreements, such as the one agreed upon for the cancer center last month, from incoming biotech companies that offer job training to local residents so that they will not be stuck in entry-level positions.

“Traditionally what has been happening is that the biotech industry comes in and promises hundreds of jobs, but the number of jobs and quality of jobs that go to New Haven residents are low,” she said. “In the future, the community should be at the table when the decisions are made.”

Associate Vice President for New Haven and State Affairs Michael Morand said the solution to finding adequate jobs for residents should be to focus on increasing education levels, not chasing away potential employers.

“Rather than attacking economic growth, the few loud critics should work to improve the education system so more people can access the economic opportunities being created,” Morand said. “If those few had their way, our community would have fewer jobs and more unemployed.”

Major biotech companies in the city, many of which are located in Science Park at 300 George St., include Genaissance Pharmaceuticals and CuraGen Corp.

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