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Beach Biotech Bingo

The genomics industry is coming to the shoreline big-time.

Watch out Cambridge and San Francisco: the shoreline wants to eat your lunch (at least some of it). After some past missteps, the Connecticut coast is aiming for biotech bliss. That’s being typified by new investment, new partnerships, and a renewed sense that the area can be a major player in the lucrative genomics industry.

When executives at New York’s highly regarded Icahn Institute at Mount Sinai decided to expand its genomics research lab beyond Manhattan, they considered sites in Long Island, Westchester County, Stamford, and New Haven. That was before they learned about Branford, the shoreline town that’s distinguishing itself as a burgeoning biotechnology and life sciences hub. Last October, following negotiations with local and state officials and renovations to a 16,500-square-foot space, the Mount Sinai Genetic Testing Laboratory opened at 1 Commercial Drive, joining nearly 20 other biotech businesses that call Branford home.

“We’re really excited to be here,” says Todd Arnold, the new lab’s managing director. “There’s an awful lot of cool stuff happening in Branford.” That might not be what you’d expect a Ph.D. in molecular biology to say, but Arnold’s words reflect Branford’s dual appeal as both a great place to open a cutting-edge technology company, and as a place to live and work.

“Companies say a big reason for coming to Branford is the quality of life, in addition to the economic incentives,” says First Selectman Jamie Cosgrove. He points to infrastructure investments Branford has made in recent years including water, sewage treatment, highway access, rail service, and Tweed New Haven Airport.

Branford is no stranger to biotech. Mount Sinai’s Arnold can personally attest to that. From 2007 until April 2014, he served as the vice president of research and development for 454 Life Sciences, a Branford-born pioneer in genome sequencing, the game-changing discovery that allows scientists to map out a person’s entire genetic code. Founded in 2000 by Yale scientist Jonathan Rothberg and sold in 2007 to Swiss biotech giant Roche, 454 recently shuttered its Branford operation—which happens to be where Mount Sinai set up its lab.

There were even earlier biotech startups in Branford, dating back to 1987 when Neurogen launched to develop drugs for Big Pharma. By 2009, however, the company hadn’t brought a single drug to market (or turned a profit), and it was acquired by a San Diego firm. Similar scenarios played out with other fledgling companies including CuraGen, CGI Pharmaceuticals, and Marinus Pharmaceuticals. During the Great Recession, venture capitalists that had been funding startups looked for safer investments, and Branford lost its biotech mojo.

Still, the town had so many ideal assets that it couldn’t be ignored long by an industry that’s booming along with the nation’s healthcare sector. Biotech has become a focal point for Governor Dannel Malloy’s Department of Economic and Community Development. The DECD is aggressively luring companies to the state with tax credits, loan programs, workforce training, and other incentives.

In fact, the DECD has established a Life Sciences Group that comprises university scientists, hospital clinicians, advocacy groups, and entrepreneurs.

“We’ve created a critical mass of individuals who are collaborating and marketing Connecticut as the place to be,” says State Representative Lonnie Reed, whose district includes Branford. Reed is legislative liaison for the group. She points to the addition of the Jackson Laboratory of Genomic Medicine—a renowned research institute with locations in Bar Harbor, Maine, and Sacramento, California—on the campus of the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington. The state invested nearly $300 million in the 200,000-square-foot facility. Together with biotech R&D teams at UConn, Yale, and other institutions, it will make Connecticut that much more of an attractive biotech destination.

And there’s more. Last fall, the state’s Business and Industry Association created the Connecticut Bioscience Growth Council “as a means to foster collaboration among biotech firms and to connect with state regulatory agencies,” says council chair Paul Pescatello. The goal is to position Farmington, New Haven, and Branford as competitors to Cambridge, Massachusetts, San Diego, the San Francisco Bay Area, and other well-known biotech hubs.

Pescatello was critical of the Malloy administration’s proposed cut in R&D tax credits and an increase in data-processing taxes. Both impact biotech firms. But negotiations on the revised state budget, passed at the end of June, kept those incentives in place. “When we’re trying to attract companies, and we don’t have the density [of Cambridge, San Diego, or San Francisco], we have to be more cost competitive,” he says.

In addition to state support, an influx of private venture capital has also nurtured Branford’s biotech renaissance. One recipient of such largesse is AxioMx, a provider of recombinant antibody technologies that opened in 2012. The startup has received VC funding from Connecticut Innovations, Elm Street Ventures, and Vital Venture Capital.

Branford’s proximity to a skilled workforce was another draw for AxioMx. The company started out with eight employees – a number that’s tripled since. “Besides hiring experienced individuals, especially for R&D and managerial positions, we require entry-level people with skills in biotech,” says President and CEO Christopher McLeod. “We draw from Yale, University of New Haven, UConn, Quinnipiac, and Sacred Heart.”

While attracting startups is critical to building Branford’s biotech ecosystem, keeping them here is equally important. That’s where the town’s noneconomic attributes shine. Core Informatics, a leading provider of data management software, is a perfect example. Founders Anthony Uzzo and Jim Gregory (natives of Branford and Guilford, respectively) wrote the informatics software for Neurogen, yet chose to launch their own venture after Neurogen was acquired. Two years ago, when Core’s cloud-computing platform boosted its growth, they brought in Josh Geballe, another Branford resident (and a former IBM finance executive) as CEO.

“We’re in Branford for a number of reasons,” Geballe says. “First is the incredibly high quality of life along the shoreline and the ability to live an outdoor lifestyle. We have employees in and around Boston,” he adds, referring to Core’s satellite office in Cambridge. “Although it’s a great city, it’s tough to get around and an expensive place to live.”

It also didn’t hurt that Core received $3 million in DECD funding last year toward the company’s $8.4 million expansion project. That includes escalating its workforce from the current 65 employees—triple the number just a year and a half ago—to nearly 100 by the end of this year. “The region has made tremendous strides in the past decade, but I still feel we’re just getting started,” Geballe says.

“What I love about Branford is that they get it,” says Susan Froshauer, president and CEO of CURE, an advocacy group representing biotech companies throughout Connecticut. Froshauer notes the concerted efforts of the first selectman, Cosgrove, and his economic development team. “They are committed partners who embrace the benefits of nurturing a bioscience cluster.”

Branford still has a ways to go before reaching the critical mass of more concentrated biotech hubs like Cambridge. Froshauer would like to see the addition of more IT providers and manufacturers of medical devices, for instance. A possible downside, too, she says, is that Branford’s biotech players are geographically dispersed. “There’s no dense center where people are bumping into each other. That type of collaboration is the miraculous part of how biotech works.”

As Lonnie Reed puts it, “They want sexy digs.” Branford could get that if a proposal to turn the town’s old Atlantic Wire factory into a complex of apartments, restaurants, and shops wins final zoning approval. “We’re looking at the whole area as a work-live-stay place,” she says. “We’re eager to grow the biotech businesses in Branford, to make them know they can stay here, and that we’re listening to their needs.”

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By: Bob Woods

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