Groton's role in plans for research triangle in Connecticut gets a boost

Catherine Smith, commissioner of the state Department of Economic and Community Development, said in a wide-ranging interview this week that she hopes the announced handing over of a Pfizer Inc. building to a nonprofit bioscience incubator will help southeastern Connecticut develop into one leg of a statewide research triangle that includes New Haven and Farmington.

Smith said the effort by the bioscience network Connecticut United for Research Excellence to develop the CURE Innovation Commons incubator in Groton is part of a statewide strategy to boost the business climate by investing in such areas as biotechnology, advanced manufacturing and medical devices.

What's more, by developing a vibrant bioscience community revolving around The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine and the University of Connecticut Health Center in Farmington, Yale University in New Haven and Pfizer, the state is hoping to not only attract more small businesses but to encourage larger enterprises to stay and grow in Connecticut, she said.

"I'm very optimistic if we continue to build that critical mass of risk takers and strong entrepreneurs that we will see the likes of Pfizer saying, 'Why did we leave in the first place?'" Smith said.

Smith was referring to Pfizer's decision in February 2011 - not long after Gov. Dannel P. Malloy took office - to downsize its operations in Groton and lay off 1,100 employees. The announcement was a big blow to the region, which already had absorbed the loss of Pfizer's research-and-development headquarters in New London as well as the closing of its longtime manufacturing facility in Groton - moves that cut in half a company presence that once numbered about 6,000 locally.

Another shockwave went through the community last year when Pfizer announced that it would be tearing down the massive laboratory and office space known as Building 118 that once served as its research headquarters. A few months later, Malloy announced that Pfizer was donating its smaller Building 286 to CURE in an effort to attract and retain scientific talent in southeastern Connecticut.

Susan Froshauer, president and chief executive of CURE, said in a phone interview that she expects the first tenants of the building will begin moving in at the beginning of next year, though renovations are not expected to be complete until the spring. She expects space needs will be varied, with some companies requiring only a few hundred square feet for a few weeks and others perhaps utilizing 2,000 to 3,000 square feet over a longer period, so renovations will be made with flexibility in mind.

"We're not just building a building for today; we have to build it for tomorrow," Froshauer said.

Kim Kelly has been named director of project management for The Commons, bringing expertise in environmental and safety issues as she oversees the building renovations. She also will be in charge of developing partnerships, educational programming and day-to-day operations of the incubator.

Froshauer said The Commons would use The Grove co-working space in New Haven as a model for the local incubator, offering clients the opportunity to come and go and connecting them to others with varied expertise. She said no cost structure has yet been finalized, and exactly what equipment will be available at The Commons will await the results of a survey being sent out to interested parties.

"We want it to be a lively, busy space," Froshauer said. "This is a special opportunity because of the talent pool."

Smith said The Commons will be differentiated from the Technology Incubation Program at the University of Connecticut at Avery Point because the TIP program will be tied more into academic pursuits, while the new incubator will have higher-level lab space. What's more, said Froshauer, The Commons offers larger spaces into which the TIP companies can grow once they leave the UConn campus.

Froshauer and Smith said they are taking a broad view of bioscience in hoping to attract companies that could range from those working on personalized medicines and vaccines to others looking at medical devices and even marine science applications. Froshauer said The Commons will house both growing companies and startups, including those with an engineering and agricultural bent, and that applications are available by going to the website curecommons.org.

Having all of these companies swirling in and out of The Commons will enliven the bioscience ecosystem that the state has been trying to jump start, Smith said, while also making it easier for startups to tie into government help, such as the $200 million Bioscience Innovation Fund administered by Connecticut Innovations.

"Talent is such an important issue," Smith said. "The ecosystem part of it really is starting to work."

At the same time, Smith said, the state has been careful with taxpayer funds, doing rigorous analyses of funding requests to ensure that the investments likely will pay out over time in higher tax revenues and requiring claw-back provisions in which the state can recoup money if agreements are not adhered to. In some cases, such as Jackson Lab, the state also is expected to take "a little bit of the action" with royalty payments based on products being developed, she said.

Smith said the famed Research Triangle in North Carolina has been built up over decades, and Connecticut will not catch up overnight. But she said Connecticut is gaining traction, as seen by a number of renowned scientists such as Charles Lee, director of Jackson Lab, picking up and moving to the state.

Companies from out of state are also stepping up to the plate, as indicated by the announcement last month that the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai will be creating a genomics research center in Branford that is expected to create more than 100 jobs.

George Mathanool, chairman of the Groton Economic Development Commission, said the Mount Sinai move is a good indication that the state's bioscience direction is a good one. He said a research triangle that includes Groton has merit, especially if the state can develop a few life science areas, such as genomics, in which it can specialize.

"I'm sure the DECD has the right strategy in mind to get this triangle momentum going forward," he said.

"For Connecticut to start now, it is late, but it is really necessary," Smith said.

l.howard@theday.com

Twitter: @KingstonLeeHow

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