Boston’s rise as the biotech capital of the world has been well-chronicled. Many factors make the city — in fact, the entire region around Boston — attractive to those seeking to create the next pharmaceutical breakthroughs. The area is home to some of the finest academic institutions, hospitals, and venture capital firms; has a highly educated and diverse workforce; and its location provides relatively easy access to Europe and the world beyond.
Less celebrated is the Boston mindset, which has been pivotal in seeding and sustaining the industry’s growth here. It’s not news that biotech is a high-risk, high-reward endeavor, and this reality has created a circle of well-scarred biotech veterans.
One of the greatest assets of the Boston area is the critical mass of people willing to accept that 19 out of 20 potential drugs in the late stages of research will never make it to the market. It’s not just the region’s geneticists, biologists, and other researchers who thrive in this environment of uncertainty, but also an ever-stronger web of executives and venture capitalists who are willing to rely on a combination of great science and faith — women and men who live with the confidence that the next breakthrough is around the corner.
If today’s program fails to deliver, thousands of employees working in biotech know that the Boston area will be ready to give them a second shot, probably at a company so close to their old employer they won’t even need to change parking spots or T stops.
The company I work for, Sanofi (SNY), benefits from this broad web of concentrated, risk-tolerant entrepreneurship. The man who built Genzyme, Henri Termeer, chose to come to Boston in 1983 from a safe and comfortable job in California for the opportunity to guide a fledging startup located on the edge of Boston’s seedy Combat Zone to develop treatments for the rarest of diseases.
To be sure, the Boston of 2018 is facing a new set of challenges, ones that can’t be eliminated by four decades of a failure-tolerant worldview. There is a question now of whether the growth of the biotech industry in this region is sustainable, of how many companies we can pack into an already densely developed region. Can-do entrepreneurship alone won’t modernize the region’s transportation infrastructure, nor will a concentration of academic know-how make housing more affordable.
State and local governments recognize these issues and are working to make it easier to get into and out of the city, and to ensure the vitality of the towns and neighborhoods that have earned the Boston region a reputation for livability.
But even modernized infrastructure and thriving cities and towns won’t guarantee success. Turning the biology of disease into a new generation of cures is an incredibly difficult endeavor, and there may be dry spells and failures that set back the industry here.
What we do know is that when those lean times come, Boston won’t be shaken. We’ll pick ourselves up, take the Red Line to Kendall Square, and start looking for the next big thing, yesterday’s failure serving as a spark of hope for tomorrow.
Bill Sibold is executive vice president and head of Sanofi Genzyme.