Welcome to Kendall Square, the fertile crescent of the booming biotech industry.
In this 10-acre stretch along the Charles River, you could complete the entire life cycle of a single biotech company without much troubling your pedometer. License some promising science idea from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or from the Broad Institute. Rent your workspace from LabCentral or Mass Innovation Labs to test out your hypothesis. Pitch your big idea to Atlas Venture or New Enterprise Associates to get your seed funding, build your staff, and save humanity. And finally, of course, there’s the final step: Sell your startup to Pfizer or Novartis and retire to a beach in Jamaica.
Each of these stops is separated by just a few city blocks, or in some cases maybe connected by a hallway.
My new job is to wade into the politics and personalities of biotech’s boomtown. Before moving to the Boston area, I’d been covering the industry for about four years from Washington, D.C., a city that revolves more around lobbyists than lab rats.
Walking the streets of Kendall Square is quite a different experience from strolling the halls of Congress. Diners at Tatte on Third Street chew over the latest big buyout deal alongside their pastries, and members of a weekly running club are just as likely to chat about sequencing T cells as they are about the Patriots.
This ecosystem churns with clashing egos, corporate spats, brilliant ideas, crushing failures — and plenty of dogged competition to get in early on what could be the next multibillion-dollar drug.
With stakes that high, it’s no surprise that rumors are constantly swirling of who’s going public, who’s being bought out, and who’s going belly-up. And with lives and careers and companies on the line with each new round of drug testings and FDA approvals, there is no shortage of drama here: You can never be sure who’s listening from the next table at the local lunch spot.
It wasn’t always this way.
In the 1960s, the area was home to NASA’s Electronics Research Center, bent on developing the technology necessary to win the space race. But federal belt-tightening soon cut that project short, and the Kendall of the 1970s was mostly a blighted stretch of factories and warehouses.
The seeds of what Kendall would become emerged only gradually. Biogen, a biotech company cofounded by MIT Nobel laureate Phillip Sharp, came to the area in the early 1980s, followed by Genzyme a few years later. On their heels was a deluge of startups angling to make medicines out of promising science.
It was not an overnight boom, though, and the surrounding area wasn’t always hospitable.
“I remember one of the graduate students in Phil’s lab got assaulted — knifed — on one of the streets that was no more than four, five blocks from where we worked,” recalled Dr. Sean Harper, who worked in Sharp’s MIT lab as a postdoctoral fellow in the early 1990s. Harper now leads research and development for the biotech giant Amgen, which is headquartered in California but has rapidly expanded its Kendall footprint in recent years.
The ensuing decades brought a rush of scientific progress, venture investment dollars, and Wall Street success that have made Kendall the beating heart of biotech. And if Kendall is the heart, then the aorta must be MIT, pumping out brilliant engineers and world-altering ideas while serving as the magnet that attracts the Googles, Amazons, and Biogens of the world.
As one indication of its commitment, last summer MIT submitted a $1.2 billion development plan to the Cambridge Planning Board called the Kendall Square Initiative that calls for three new buildings for research and development, two more for housing, and a sixth building for retail and office space.
With so much happening here, often at breathtaking speed, there is an awful lot of hype in Kendall — endless, buzzy promises to disrupt this or innovate that, breathless press releases heralding early discoveries as game-changing breakthroughs that turn out to be premature and sometimes fizzle altogether. Even local restaurants can’t resist touting science-inspired offerings that toe the line of gimmicky. (Is it really necessary to mix drinks in a centrifuge, Cafe ArtScience?)
Still, it’s hard to imagine a more important neighborhood anywhere in the country, maybe even the world, that’s focused on our health and well-being, than this one.
As Ron Renaud, CEO of the biotech upstart RaNA Therapeutics, told me, “You could be standing at One Kendall Square and you could say to someone who’s not in this industry, ‘There are probably a couple dozen companies within a 200-yard radius of where we’re standing with some of the most amazing science that’s going on out there.’”