Biotech Center a ‘Golden Egg’ for NH Tech Sector
By Dave Solomon, Union Leader
MANCHESTER, NH — A $300 million biotech research and manufacturing center soon to be launched in the Manchester Millyard could help the state address a shortage of high-tech workers because it has unique attributes that will attract Boston-area talent in a way most existing enterprises cannot, according to some of the state’s leading economists and educators.
The Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute is also expected to spawn a host of associated enterprises that will spring up around it as suppliers and subcontractors start new businesses in and around the Millyard to take advantage of the critical mass this federally funded program is expected to generate.
“Biotech right now is the golden egg of economic development,” said economist Russ Thibeault, president and founder of Applied Economic Research in Laconia. “It’s seen as the next big wave, the next big technology wave, and I think that the opportunities for spin-off growth are great, looking from the outside in.”
The initiative, unveiled at a White House gathering of academic and industry leaders on Wednesday, will be led by Manchester inventor Dean Kamen, whose Millyard buildings will house the research and development of new technology for generating tissue to be used in organ and limb replacement, particularly for wounded military personnel.
The Defense Department said $80 million in federal funding and $214 million from industry, university, nonprofit and other sources would be devoted to the effort.
With plans to hire up to 100 employees by the end of next year, the ARMI will be competing with New Hampshire’s existing high-tech companies for an already strained labor supply.
Economist Brian Gottlob of PolEcon Research in Dover, who has spent years studying the labor market in New Hampshire, says ARMI could actually help improve the situation.
“People in technology like to be part of something on the cutting edge,” said Gottlob. “And the Boston area is ripe with biotech companies. Would this project be able to lure them because it is so cutting-edge, and because it does have the backing of the feds? That might be enough to be very attractive.”
The combination of secure financing and an opportunity to work in such a high-profile endeavor could put ARMI in a category all its own when it comes to recruitment, and draw professional talent into New Hampshire from Massachusetts in a way that hasn’t been seen since the 1990s.
“The talent is out there for sure,” said Jennifer Gray, president of Market Street Talent in Portsmouth, a high-tech recruiting agency. “It’s just a matter of drawing them to the area. Dean (Kamen) is pretty smart, so I imagine he’s thought of that.”
Gray, whose firm is trying to fill hundreds of openings, says the winning companies have something special to offer. “Technologists will be drawn by cutting-edge technology,” she agreed. “That doesn’t negate all the other considerations, but it’s a big one.”
The availability of biotech talent in nearby Boston had to be a consideration in the decision to award the work to Manchester, because there’s little question the existing labor pool in New Hampshire would be inadequate.
“What they are going to need initially is scientists and researchers and there is clearly more of that workforce available in the Boston area than in New Hampshire, with the exception of some spaces around Dartmouth where they have done biology work in the past,” said Gottlob.
That’s where the partnership with nearby University of New Hampshire at Manchester comes in, according to Mike Decelle, who was named Dean of UNH-Manchester in February.
The university is a neighbor to Kamen’s Deka Research and Development Corp. and its nearly 400 engineers in the Millyard, and was a partner in developing the project, according to Decelle.
The portion of the successful proposal that addressed education and workforce development was written by UNH personnel in partnership with Kamen’s organization, he said.
“Part of the plan for economic and workforce development is going to involve us actually building laboratory facilities on the sixth floor of our building in Manchester that will be expressly supporting the work of the institute,” said Decelle.
“I’d like to think this will be such an appealing opportunity that we will be attracting increasing numbers of students from outside the state, who, because the institute is here, will stay, work and play after graduation.”
In the years that follow the initial research, the hope is that ARMI will ramp up to full-scale manufacturing and distribution, which will mean hundreds of good paying jobs in advanced manufacturing that don’t necessarily require a graduate degree, but will require some specialized training.
Decelle said an existing relationship between Great Bay Community College in the Seacoast and Lonza Biologics at the Pease International Tradeport is a model for business and education collaboration in workforce development that could be applied to the ARMI initiative, to the benefit of students at Manchester Community College and others nearby. Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas, who initially expressed some concern about staffing the operation, is expecting in-migration to be a big part of the solution, not only for ARMI but for the many spin-offs it’s expected to generate.
“I think what you’ll find is that eventually we’ll have a group of companies that are working in the biotech field, and you’ll find employees coming up from Boston to work here, especially with the tax climate and quality of life we have to offer,” he said.
No silver bullet
While it’s hard to look at Wednesday’s announcement as anything but positive for the economy of New Hampshire, the ARMI will not solve the state’s workforce shortage in high-tech fields or address the nagging problem of under-employment by many who are working.
“Perhaps it will make hiring more difficult for some existing employers, but remember, there are more than 700,000 workers in the state,” said Thibeault. “It’s positive and a great thing to see, but not of overwhelming consequence.”
And while the opportunity to work on the cutting-edge of tomorrow’s technology has enormous appeal, it won’t change fundamental demographics.
“When an industry develops, sometimes the workforce can follow,” said Gottlob. “It’s really hard to say how this will play out. I will say in general with the workforce trends and population trends, it’s going to be more of a challenge than we would probably like to acknowledge.”
Despite that dose of reality, it’s hard to take issue with Decelle’s overall assessment of the announcement for New Hampshire in general and Manchester in particular: “It’s a pretty nice way to end the year.”