By Patrick Anderson
PBN Staff Writer
If the biotechnology research and manufacturing cluster leaders in Massachusetts’ South Coast region are counting on to create jobs takes off, the new Life Science and Technology Park in Fall River will be at the center of it.
Opened this winter off Route 24 north of the city center, the new 300-acre biotech park will be anchored by a $28 million University of Massachusetts Dartmouth bioprocessing and manufacturing center where life science companies can lease space and make prototypes of potential products.
“We think the UMass biomanufacturing center will be a pretty unique facility because it gives companies in the region an opportunity to develop products and processes for making products, which is very high-cost,” said Peter Abair, economic and global-affairs director for the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council. “Having a place where you can test your process and the costs of development will be great for drug companies. That alone presents a nice resource for the industry in the region.”
Since the park opened, the Fall River Office of Economic Development has already received interest from Neo Energy, a New Hampshire company interested in building a biogas plant for turning food scraps into fuel.
If it goes ahead, the Neo Energy project would employ up to 100 people on between 4 to 6 acres in the southern half of the park.
While a biogas plant doesn’t fit the medical-technology model officials hope will catalyze a regional cluster, it does fit into the target market for the park’s southern section, which is open to a wider range of uses.
For Neo Energy, the primary attraction of the Fall River location is the easy highway access and the South Coast’s population density, which provides an ample supply of the raw material the company turns into fuel.
But Neo Energy President Robert Nicholson said the life science park’s technology focus fits in with the company’s mission to develop new and sustainable methods for generating power.
“We consider ourselves a sustainable business and think this park is a good fit for green businesses,” Nicholson said.
Another green-energy project expected to move into the southern half of the park is the SunGen solar farm, which would take up 30 acres of land split between the South Coast biotech park and the neighboring Commerce Park. The solar farm is now going through permitting.
But whether larger companies in the medical device, pharmaceutical, genetics or bioinformatics sectors choose to come to Fall River will determine how the park and the state’s investment in it will be judged.
F. Michael DiGiano, executive vice president at NAI Hunneman in Boston, which has been hired to market the properties, described interest in the South Coast biopark as “high.”
“We have had inquiries from both large and small pharma companies with projects on the board, not immediately, but in the 12- to 24-month horizon,” DiGiano said. “And there will be more to come. We feel comfortable that the South Coast biopark is becoming an opportunity that industry people know about.”
While much of the marketing effort has been focused on Boston, DiGiano said Hunneman is also reaching out to Providence-area commercial real estate brokers with the idea that the Providence and South Coast markets are really joined.
“We feel that the Providence region will also be a beneficiary of the South Coast park,” DiGiano said. “The Providence universities and labor force are an asset for the South Coast and just because there is a state line doesn’t mean that both Fall River and Providence won’t benefit from the spinoff companies that come from the park.”
In addition to the UMass bioprocessing center being built at the entrance to the biopark, government and business leaders are counting on the area’s “research triangle” that also includes UMass Dartmouth’s advanced manufacturing-technology center and the school’s work in tissue engineering to create an attractive environment for technology companies.
Fall River is also close to a number of large medical-device makers, such as Covidien in Mansfield and DePuy Orthopedics in Raynham.
“Part of this is the expertise of companies flowing back and forth along this grid,” said Susan Windham-Bannister, president and CEO of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, which invested $14.6 million in the UMass Dartmouth bioprocessing center at the end of January. The investment is part of Gov. Deval Patrick’s $1 billion Life Sciences Initiative.
Fall River is also home to medical-information company Meditech, but plans to expand that firm’s presence on the South Coast with a 120,000-square-foot building in Freetown appear to have died after the company publicly said it would look elsewhere following a dispute with the Massachusetts Historical Commission involving archeological inspection of the proposed site.
Windham-Bannister said Fall River officials have already identified 75 companies in the medical, biotech and pharmaceutical industries that would make good candidates to open a facility in the park and are now hoping they get some interest.
Part of the idea behind the biopark is that some young companies that use the UMass bioprocessing center and lease space there will eventually grow to the point where they need their own space and expand out into the park.
UMass expects to hold a groundbreaking for the bioprocessing center in the spring and to complete construction in the summer of 2013.
If proximity to research and like-minded companies doesn’t work, Fall River and Massachusetts officials can also point to more traditional benefits of the park, like 30-day expedited permitting and real estate costs of approximately half those in Boston.
But Abair of the Biotechnology Council said he doesn’t know of any facilities similar to the bioprocessing center in the country and the benefits of being close to it will be a big draw to firms throughout the region.
“What companies need in this industry is speed to lab bench and speed to market: you need to be manufacturing as soon as a product is approved by the FDA,” Abair said. “Are there other places in New England where biotech companies could go? Yes, but at different cost points.” •