Published September 25. 2013 4:00AM
New London - Edison Liu, president and chief executive of the Jackson Laboratory, said Tuesday the proximity of a major academic institution is what drove his nonprofit research organization to build a new facility in Farmington rather than renovate space available at the Pfizer Inc. campus in Groton.
"We wanted to be near a university," Liu said after a speech before about 40 scientists and economic development officials at the Fort Trumbull Conference Center. "We've had university envy for 84 years."
Jackson Lab, which originated in 1929 in a small and isolated Maine community, is best known for the 3 million mice it provides to worldwide researchers looking into various diseases. But times are changing, Liu said, and Jackson Lab must have a presence near an academic hub to attract a pool of talent needed to face today's biotech challenges.
This is why his company is building a massive research center in Farmington called the JAX Genomic Medicine Institute that is expected to open in the middle of next year.
"Unless we as an institution change, we are going to be dinosaurs," he said. "Coming to Connecticut was, on a scientific scale, essential to us."
Maine does not have enough population or economic heft, Liu said, to provide a nexus for networking required to keep pace in today's fast-changing biotech field. And while Jackson Lab could have located in Boston or New York, it found more opportunities in Connecticut, where a nonprofit faces less competition for scientific talent, he said.
Liu noted that not everyone is comfortable with the idea of intervention in the marketplace, but he believes bioscience and technology could not exist in any country without government investments. And the challenge of developing drugs to combat disease, he said, is that scientists are really lucky if half of their projects succeed.
Private investors don't have the patience to wait seven to 14 years to start seeing a return on a questionable investment, which is how long it takes to bring a medicine from concept stage to market, he said. Liu said he believes that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, Department of Economic and Community Development Commissioner Catherine Smith and politicians including state Sen. Andrew Maynard, D-Stonington, understand the necessity of government investments, which is why Connecticut is committed to spending $200 million over the next decade to advance bioscience efforts in the state.
"The challenge for us," Liu said, "is, 'are we getting it right?'"
Liu said the question can be applied to many situations today because of major changes in health care, bioscience and economics.
The era of the blockbuster drug, for instance, is starting to fade, with personalized medicines that target individual genetic makeups becoming more important. But the lack of blockbusters, Liu said, calls into question the whole economic model of pharmaceutical companies that have depended on $1 billion-plus medicine sales to generate money to reinvest in research.
The future, Liu suggested, may include insurance companies paying drug firms and device manufacturers to provide solutions to major health care problems. This would, in turn, reduce the amount of money health insurers would have to pay out for common diseases, he said.
"They get it," Liu said of health insurers. "They know they've got to do things differently."
Liu also sees opportunities in regionalization, saying there's no unified economic development scheme in a state that has 169 communities doing their own thing. A better model, he said, is the Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, which regionalized economic development and zoning to harness "the power of aggregation."
As for the economy of southeastern Connecticut, Liu emphasized the importance of retaining talented people by maintaining an attractive lifestyle, including good schools and low crime. The ability to quickly change business priorities, he added, is key to taking advantage of new opportunities in quickly evolving fields.
Liu acknowledged that the global nature of the pharmaceutical business has meant places like Pfizer in Groton are in a downsizing mode.
"If it doesn't work here, let's go to Cambridge" may have been the thought process of executives who decided two years ago to move Pfizer's key discovery scientists to Massachusetts, Liu said, which led to a wave of local layoffs that totaled more than 1,100.
But while Pfizer may be vacating buildings and is currently demolishing its former R&D headquarters known as Building 118, Liu said there are opportunities here. Liu suggested using Pfizer space as an "idea incubator" that could bring young entrepreneurs to the region.
"Working in silos doesn't work anymore," Liu said.