BOSTON (SHNS) – Massachusetts prides itself for being a global hub for the biotech and life sciences industries, but with other states on its heels — or themselves boasting of being number one — Bay State leaders are looking for new ways to compete.

At least 18,000 people have flooded into Boston this week for an annual international convention on biotech and life sciences, hosted this year at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center. Industry leaders and government officials from around the country and the world are among those attending.

“As Boston welcomes BIO here, as you can see from the thousands that are already here and that will flood these floors throughout the week, we want to make sure that Massachusetts signals to the world that we are open for business,” Labor and Workforce Development Secretary Lauren Jones said on Monday.

Massachusetts was one of the first states to invest in the biotechnology industry, and government officials continue to see this sector as an important part of the state’s economy. But workforce shortages continue to challenge the industry, as well as competition from states like California, Texas and North Carolina.

There are over 1,000 biotech companies in the Bay State, and 18 of the top 20 biopharma companies have a physical presence in the commonwealth, according to MassBio CEO Kendalle Burlin O’Connell.

“We didn’t get to be the best place in the world for life science by accident. It’s because of an incredible collaboration that we have here between industry, government and academia,” Burlin O’Connell said. Industry leaders say the universities in and around Boston churn out a highly educated workforce that feeds directly into the field.

Different States, Different Landscapes

Most of Massachusetts’ industry is centered around the greater Boston area. But larger states have several biotech hubs within their borders.

“We have five different markets within Texas,” said Victoria Ford, president and CEO of the Texas Healthcare and Bioscience Institute. “You have the Houston market, which has a heavy focus on cancer cell therapy, and you also have an international port. There’s significant infrastructure in Dallas. Dallas has a lot of health care experts, and UT Southwestern is an anchor in that market … San Antonio’s life science industry focuses on military infrastructure because there’s so much of it there. Austin has all different parts and pieces as well as UT Austin … And El Paso partners with the city of Juarez, its Mexico sister, where there are maquiladoras — large manufacturing plants to support other markets,”

Similarly, in California there are three major markets in the north, south and central parts of the state.

The West Coast market is also deeply connected to other countries, including those in Australia, Japan and Korea, according to Biocom California President and CEO Joseph Panetta.

In California, the industry has about three times more workers than Massachusetts, employing about 400,000 people, compared to roughly 118,000. And compared to Massachusetts’ 1,000 companies, Panetta said California has about 5,000 life science businesses.

South San Francisco Mayor Buenaflor Nicolas said the Bay Area also has the advantage of being close to Silicon Valley, as biotech is converging with the high tech industry.

Panetta said that despite some of California’s advantages, Massachusetts’ state government has invested in the industry in a way the West Coast state hasn’t.

“Massachusetts invests very heavily at the state government level in promoting biotechnology, in fact you’ve got the [Massachusetts Biotechnology Council]. We don’t have that in California,” he said. “And I’ve tried to encourage our lieutenant governor, who is responsible for international trade, to take a look at what goes on in Massachusetts at the state level, because I’ve said we could benefit by doing similar things.”

Since 2008 when Gov. Deval Patrick signed into law a 10-year, $1 billion investment into Massachusetts life sciences, the state has seen almost a 100 percent increase in the number of employees in the industry, according to MassBio’s head of external affairs, Ben Bradford.

However, the explosive growth of this industry has slowed down over the past year. Despite record-breaking growth in 2020 and 2021, Bradford said, 2022 saw some slackening in the market.

“I think in the big picture, we are still the envy of all other biotech ecosystems. While money is not flowing as it once did, call it 18 months ago and prior to that, money is still flowing into Massachusetts-headquartered companies more than almost any other location in the country and in the world,” Bradford said.

Bradford partly attributed this slow-down to attention shifting away from the COVID-19 pandemic, during which Massachusetts-based biopharma companies played major role in vaccine development.

He added that although there was not as much growth as years past, 2022 was still the second highest venture capital funding year on record. In the first nine months of last year the state added over 12,000 jobs in just biopharma, Bradford said.

Meanwhile, 2022 was one of the biggest years so far for North Carolina. The North Carolina Biotechnology Center reported that companies announced 33 projects totaling $2.1 billion of investments and more than 2,700 new jobs in life sciences and related fields, according to WUNC North Carolina Public Radio.

Gov. Maura Healey announced on Tuesday that she plans to continue the high-dollar commitment to the life sciences sector that began under Patrick, although she didn’t assign a dollar value or duration to her developing plans.

Former Gov. Charlie Baker in 2018 signed off on $623 million in additional bond authorization and tax credits for the sector over five years, and lawmakers have extended the program until 2025. The extension gives Healey some time to develop legislation.

“A Baby Company That’s Growing”

Elected officials in Texas are also planning big investments and tax cuts for the sector over the next few years.

The Texas Legislature passed a new inventory tax exemption for medical and biomedical products in May, Ford said, which goes before voters this November as a ballot question.

“The Legislature is very interested in supporting this industry and making sure that it continues to grow,” she said.

Despite talk of Massachusetts businesses moving to cheaper states, Ford said she has never had a company tell her that they came from Boston. Most of the Texas Healthcare and Bioscience Institute’s members are “homegrown,” she said.

But, many of the companies starting in Texas are building partnerships with biotech companies in the more-established markets in Massachusetts, California and North Carolina, according to Ford.

“The thing about Massachusetts is there’s really like a higher level of experience, a little bit longer they’ve been doing it. So when I have a baby company that’s growing, that really needs to be able to draw on that experience, there aren’t that many people in our area that have that kind of extensive experience,” she said. “And so they will partner with and then find somebody from another state, California, Massachusetts, North Carolina, to draw on that experience.”

While he is aware of concerns some have that biotech companies may take their business south to cheaper states, Bradford said that the ecosystem of life sciences that exists in Massachusetts cannot be easily replicated elsewhere.

“Because of the science that’s happening here in Massachusetts, it can’t be done everywhere. We have the talent coming out of our academic institutions. We have the know-how being trained through certificate programs and community colleges that make companies want to stay here,” he said. “It is that perfect storm that they can’t necessarily get elsewhere.”

Panetta echoed Bradford’s sentiments, saying that people have talked about businesses fleeing California for “the entire 24 years I’ve been involved” in the industry.

“If you look at it superficially, yeah there are cheaper states,” he said. “There’s cheaper water and cheaper power in other places. But there isn’t, and I think we share this with Massachusetts, the depth of research. The intellectual property, the entrepreneurial culture, and workforce.”

Boston Mayor Michelle Wu announced on Monday that the city will add 1,000 new workers into the sector by 2025 via a $4 million grant application to connect companies with city residents seeking “good-paying” life sciences jobs and career paths. These grants will focus on helping those without four year degrees, as well as those underrepresented in the industry.

In Texas, at least six community colleges have targeted two-year associate’s degree programs for manufacturing biotechnology, Ford said.

“In life science, you have two levels. You have a manufacturing level, and you need folks who are actually on the floor and doing the science,” Ford said. “All four community college systems in the Houston region are working together and have a focus on educating people to work on the manufacturing side of life science. So in that middle space, we’re really coming out gangbusters.”

Reshma Kewalramani, CEO and President of Vertex Pharmaceuticals based in Boston, said a few years ago she was challenged on how many jobs at Vertex required a four-year degree or more education. The answer was 100 percent, she said.

Kewalramani said the company now has 400 “well-paying, very necessary roles,” that don’t require four-year degrees.

The Healey administration is also newly promoting a MassTalent platform to shore up the workforce in the life sciences, clean energy and advanced manufacturing sectors, and to provide job seekers with training opportunities. About $50 million is available in the Workforce Competitiveness Trust Fund to support partnerships for training partners and companies, the governor’s office said.