Featured in the Boston Business Journal: Whitehead Institute hosts discussion on advancing global science


Founding member of the Whitehead Institute and professor of biology and biological engineering at MIT.

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The Cambridge Innovation Center’s pending expansion into Boston’s Financial District confirms what many in the Bay State have long recognized: the dramatic growth in Cambridge—particularly in Kendall Square—is commanding attention across Massachusetts and beyond. The international community is also noticing.

When leaders of the Karolinska Institute, one of Europe’s largest and most prestigious medical research universities, wanted to witness best practices in life sciences innovation, they came to Massachusetts. Recently, Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research, a Kendall Square fixture recognized for its groundbreaking, cutting-edge research, hosted a delegation from the Karolinska, along with presidents of other major Swedish universities, representatives of the Swedish government, and CEOs from some of Sweden’s leading medical companies, hospitals, and venture funds. Their goal was to better understand Cambridge’s success in biomedicine and determine how to duplicate this dynamism and economic growth at home.

Whitehead assembled a host of key figures from the Massachusetts biotechnology innovation economy—leaders in state government, scientific research, technology, business, and venture capital—to explain the ecosystem that has enabled the Commonwealth to become the world’s foremost life sciences destination.

Kendall Square is a testament to Massachusetts’ commitment to advancing science and technology. Standing in front of Whitehead Institute, the delegation saw landmarks of the vibrant Kendall Square community on every corner—from the MIT campus to Biogen Idec, Lab Central to Broad Institute, Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research to Flagship Ventures. For years, pioneers from across the globe have made the pilgrimage to Kendall Square, hoping to discover the secrets of its success.

Is it possible to replicate such development elsewhere? When I look back to the founding of Whitehead in 1982, our Cambridge neighborhood was a very different place. The “bump and connect” culture of today’s Kendall Square, with cafes, coffee shops, bars, and restaurants that attract students, start-ups, research institutes, and large biotechs, had yet to evolve. The one constant was MIT.

The educational infrastructure that the university and its research partnerships provided allowed for science- and technology-based creativity to gain a foothold. The labs, spin-offs, and start-ups—along with access to funding and supportive government policies—that grew up around MIT were fed by the university’s commitments to innovation in teaching, research, and technology transfer.

Many institutions in Sweden, including the Karolinska Institute and Uppsala University, are trying to reproduce the environment that has ultimately led to the new drugs, medical devices, and companies that drive the Massachusetts economy. We are happy to help them, as there remain far too many diseases that require deeper understanding before we can better treat or cure them. At the same time, we must ensure that we continue to nurture our homegrown innovation culture, keeping it thriving not just in Kendall Square but throughout the Commonwealth.

Harvey Lodish is a Founding Member of Whitehead Institute and Professor of Biology and Biological Engineering at MIT. He is Chair of the Scientific Advisory Board of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center.