Bill to push bioscience effort in region gets support at hearing

Hartford - Local scientists, entrepreneurs and legislators advocated during a Commerce Committee public hearing Tuesday for a bill that would require the state to take the necessary steps to find an organization that would create a program to grow bioscience and biotechnology businesses in southeastern Connecticut.

The ranking member on the committee, state Rep. Gail Lavielle, R-Wilton, questioned whether it made sense to carve out a separate bioscience initiative in southeastern Connecticut rather than grow the substantial bioscience initiatives that already exist in the Hartford-Farmington area, such as The Jackson Laboratory. Those from southeastern Connecticut said the local initiative was needed to keep jobs in the state and make use of both existing infrastructure and the highly trained people already in the region.

Lavielle said that many people in Connecticut have to drive more than an hour to get to work. So why not continue focusing on the Hartford corridor? she said.

"This is a small state," Lavielle said. "I live in the enchanted forest in southwestern Connecticut, and it takes me about as long as anyone to get here in the morning, and that is an hour and a half."

State Rep. Betsy Ritter, D-Waterford, said it's easy to say the state is small.

"But I don't think there are many people that will deny that the one corridor that is the hardest to reach is to go from southeast to northwest in the state of Connecticut," Ritter said.

The bill would require the Department of Economic and Community Development to issue a request for proposals by Feb. 1, 2015. Those who apply would have to explain, among other things, their outreach efforts, marketing plans and how they would acquire a facility to serve as a business incubator. This bill draws on a December report by Connecticut United for Research Excellence (CURE), which analyzed opportunities in the region.

Specific funding for the program is not included in the bill. Ritter said that there could be funding in the future, but it depends on how much support the project gets.

The State Bond Commission allocated a $4.2 million grant last month for Connecticut United for Research Excellence (CURE) to establish a Bioscience Innovation Center on the Pfizer campus at Building 286. The group received $365,000 previously from the state for the project.

The funding needs for the bioscience and biotechnology initiative in southeastern Connecticut going forward will also depend on what happens with the CURE incubator, supporters of the bill said.

A number of members of the SECTen Entrepreneur Network and Emerging Business Council, a group of pharma and biotechnology professionals, testified at the public hearing in favor of the bill along with the executive director of seCTer, a nonprofit regional economic development agency and an economic development specialist for the Town of Groton.

They said their goal was to stop bioscience professionals from leaving the area, use the available infrastructure and entice more professionals to the region.

"Instead of just allowing people to sort of mass exodus, which is what I think people have assumed has happened, well how do we keep people, how do we make solutions," said Kristin Havrilla Clarke, an economic development specialist for Groton.

Nancy Motola, a member of the SECTen council, said her group has about 150 members.

Funding only the Hartford area "excludes us," Motola said.

"There are a lot of people, a lot of infrastructure, a lot of ideas, all that stuff is still floating around and we don't have critical mass, I think, but there is a potential for critical mass," said Barbara Sahagan, a member of the SECTen council.

Networking works best in close proximity, Sahagan said.

"Look at Silicon Valley; it would never have worked if they were all scattered all over," Sahagan said. "You can't drive an hour to bounce ideas off people."

j.somers@theday.com

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