Here in the Kendall Square neighborhood, Cambridge (Massachusetts) , office rents are almost the highest in the world. This is Philippe Lopes-Fernandes, one of the managers of the French pharmaceutical company Ipsen, who is visiting us. “This square is quite emblematiche enthuses. All around, it’s pharma. You see, you can see the labs through the windows… What’s interesting is that at noon, this square is full, with people from several labs meeting. They generally studied together, at MIT, Harvard or Paris. They sit down, eat a sandwich and talk. This confrontation of ideas and well-made brains is very important to advance treatments for patients.”
In fact, right next door are Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), these prestigious American universities which train thousands of scientists each year. They then create biotechs, research start-ups. There are hundreds of them. In this same district, there are large hospitals for carrying out clinical trials, investors, investment funds specializing in health and the largest pharmaceutical laboratories, the “big pharmas” such as Pfizer, Takeda, Novartis, AbbVie, AstraZeneca as well than French people like Ipsen and Sanofi.
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Sanofi has just inaugurated a huge headquarters in Cambridge. The French company is one of the area’s leading employers with 4,000 employees. “Cambridge, today in the world, is the center of innovationrejoices Bill Sibold, the boss of Sanofi in North America. This district began to be built about forty years ago and now we have the whole ecosystem here. All research and pharmaceutical players are a stone’s throw away. We usually say here that when you change jobs, you don’t need to change parking spaces. Cambridge, for the world of health, it is The place to bethe place to be“
And Cambridge is growing day by day with researchers arriving from all over the world. Flavie is a biostatistician. It designs clinical trials. This Frenchwoman has been working in a large German pharmaceutical laboratory for nine years. “When I arrived, it was one building. I arrived at the same time as other people, so they put us in prefabs. And, while we were in these prefabs, they built another building. And by the time this other building was built, we had already recruited more people than we could fit in. So they built a third one again!”
And in Cambridge, one company in particular has been in the news for two years. The beautiful story, the “little” biotech with an incredible destiny. “It’s what reflects that Cambridge is dynamic. At the start of the Covid pandemic, there were a lot of projects and few came to fruition. Here, there is Moderna. It’s still incredible”, continues Flavie. She describes “aura” around Boston and Cambridge. “It’s a bit pompous to say it like that but it reflects the dynamism. An aura that is reinforced by Covid and that can only attract new researchers, new ideas, and an interest that continues to be alive. “ They are many, the young scientists who dream of‘a destiny to modErna, who found in just a few weeks a vaccine against Covid with an RNA technology that had never worked before.
These young scientists, there are thousands and among them, Thibault Harmand, a Frenchman graduated from Harvard. With several other young researchers, they launched Cerberus Therapeutics, a small biotech, five months ago. They dream of curing diabetes, multiple sclerosis or finding a vaccine against cancer. “Yes, it’s ambitious, acknowledges the young entrepreneur. You don’t come to Cambridge not to be ambitious!” But, for the moment, we are far from it. Biotech is hosted by a start-up incubator. With his colleagues, Thibault Harmand does his research in a lab shared with other young companies. “We have the center bench, the left bench and the one at the back over there, he describes. Here, we must be 15 or 20 different companies. We also share the fridges and everything that goes with it. It’s a bit the disadvantage of the open-space. We do lab roommates.”
Here, renting two meters of worktop benches costs $5,000 a month. “Not really a choice: as soon as you want to work with chemicals, biological products that lead to waste, there has to be a structure that takes care of that, explains Thibault Harmand. We have to go through this type of incubator.” To get started, no small structures for one or two employees. “In our case, we are really far from the final product and we just need enough space to be able to do these two or three small experiments which will allow us to recover more money so that we can continue to progress. But as soon as you want bigger, it’s hundreds of thousands of dollars a month. For the biggest biotechs, it must be millions of dollars a month in rent.”
“In Cambridge, there’s this whole lab funding ecosystem because you can’t do chemistry in your garage. It’s really the ideal place, I think, to set up a biotech.”Thibault Harmand, young researcher
And your research work, your idea, must catch the eye of investors, continues Thibault Harmand. “There’s so much exposure here on research. It’s pretty common to get emails from investors saying, ‘I just read your paper, we have a pretty good idea, is- How about we log on and see what we can do?’ For the moment, the idea is to be able to raise at the end of this year, or at the beginning of next year, 30 or 40 million.
So how do you raise so much money? “There are plenty of options. It can come from big pharmas who want to take shares in the box. It can come from what we call here ‘venture capital’. These are investment funds that are really specialized in this type of start-up. For them, it’s peanuts. It’s quite common to see companies being bought out for hundreds of millions, even billions.”
HASoday, although they do relatively little in-house research, big pharmas, large pharmaceutical laboratories, indeed draw on the good ideas of biotechs and develop them for patients around the world. In this case, the big pharmas join forces or buy out the biotechs. So, in order not to miss out on a major innovation of talent, all the major labs must have a branch in Cambridge, explains Philippe Lopes-Fernandes, of the Ipsen laboratory. “It’s super important to be visible. There are people who come knocking on our door saying, ‘I saw what you did, Ipsen. I’m interested, I’d like to talk to you. ‘ And when we knock on their door, we don’t want them to say to us: ‘Ipsen, don’t know’, but rather: ‘Ah yes, Ipsen, fine, let’s talk’.
And then in Cambridge, there is also this American spirit. The idea that research is a bet often with failures, many failures, explains Bill Sibold, the boss of Sanofi at Eunited states. “Here, there are a lot more failures than successes and it is part of the Cambridge culture to agree to invest and perhaps lose money, to tell yourself that there will be a lot of failures before finally achieving a great scientific breakthrough. It’s part of the mindset: fail, and move forward. We fail, but we move forward, we continue”he explains.
And we don’t suspect it from the street but behind the windows of these tall buildings, in the labs of Cambridge, among the thousands of teams of scientists, there may be one in the process of finding the molecule that will change the lives of millions of patients. A vaccine against HIV or cancer, the cure for diabetes or even a drug to cure Alzheimer’s.
Cambridge, Massachusetts, world epicenter of medical research: the report by Solenne Le Hen