You could be forgiven for thinking that the most innovative square mile on the planet is in Silicon Valley, California. However, the claim is that it’s a lot further east, in Massachusetts. Called Kendall Square, it is located in the city of Cambridge, part of the greater Boston Area1. Together Boston and Cambridge make up the world’s largest biotech hub with the latter being home to many start ups2. One such example is Moderna, only founded in 2010 and now world famous because if its pioneering mRNA Covid-19 vaccine.
How did the area become No. 1?
Massachusetts first emerged as a biotech area around 40 years ago, in part fired by a decision of the Cambridge City Council. This allowed what was then controversial DNA research to take place under safety regulations. Subsequently, it led to Biogen opening a lab there, attracted by an environment which contrasted with hostility elsewhere3. Many other biotechs have followed since, making Cambridge what it is today. The cluster has overtaken San Francisco as a biotech centre4 and is sometimes referred to as the Silicon Valley of biotech, with its economic growth rate in the last few years being about twice that of its home state and of the US as a whole5
A major factor in the area’s success has been the infrastructure. Massachusetts is home to some the leading US medical centres, such as Massachusetts General Hospital and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, as well as 122 colleges and universities, including globally famous Harvard and MIT. Also, the state has been willing to provide massive financial support as has the National Institute of Health (NIH), the world’s leading funder of medical research, with Boston receiving the most or second most spending of any city in the US. Further huge support has come from Venture Capital companies, with the area claiming the most robust and intelligent risk capital in the life sciences space.3,6
How can it stay at No. 1?
With burgeoning competition in the US, biotech hubs booming across Europe and rapidly evolving in China, there is no room for complacency. The growth of the Massachusetts cluster will require continued support, as will mini clusters emerging beyond the boundaries of Boston and Cambridge. Opportunities exist for expanding the R&D footprint beyond oncology and rare diseases to address broader needs (eg cardiovascular, neurological): growing capabilities beyond R&D; and positioning the area as the place to be for the convergence of biotech, med. tech and digital health. Nonetheless, there are the challenges, some of which are a consequence of the area’s success, including availability of lab space, the price of housing and transportation problems7. These are particularly Important as the area will need to compete for the best talent the world has to offer, including both great scientists and people with genuine entrepreneurial flair. In a world where there is said to be more available capital than talent, this is no small ask!8
Finally,as the history of Cambridge with legislators illustrates, success also depends on making your case. Today, it demands that the companies involved continue to convince patients, policy makers, payers, providers, investors and society at large across the globe that their offerings provide the value they seek. With the needs of each group being different, this is no easy task9. It requires outstanding, evidence-based solutions, which target unmet needs, plus communication that makes the complexities of the science intelligible and relevant to all of these very different audiences. To demonstrate its value great science needs to be brought to life for each and every one of us!10
- Which US city has ‘the most innovative square mile on the planet’? World Atlas. 2019
- Green R. Boston named world’s top biotech hub as the city’s leading biotech companies continue to make major breakthroughs. Yahoo! Finance. 2021
- Khalid A. How Boston became ’the best place in the world’ to launch a biotech. Wbur.org/news. 2017
- Move over California -Boston is now the worlds no.1 biotech hub. EPM Scientific. 2018
- Massachusetts maintains status as leading life sciences hub. Sequens. 2021
- Sarmah-Hightowers. How Massachusetts built a booming biotech system. Wework. 2019
- Massbio.org/2025 report
- Mc Kendrick J. The great digital reset: Chasing talent not capital. Forbes.2021
- Massbio.org/initiatives/value of health