Biotech start-ups find homes in Dot

By 
Mike Deehan, Special to the Reporter
May. 28, 2009

Cambridge may be the epicenter of the state’s burgeoning biotechnology industry, but Dorchester too, is making strides in getting its own piece of the life sciences pie.

Eutropics Pharmaceuticals, a Dorchester-based early-stage research company, was recently awarded a $500,000 loan through the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center’s Accelerator program to continue its work exploring innovative cancer treatments. The loan program was established to match funds granted to companies from federal or other sources, such as Eutropics’ initial grant from the National Institute of Health.

Biotech Start-Up in Dot: GeoMed's Chief Science Officer Robyn Hannigan works in a lab at UMass-Boston. Photo by Mike DeehanBiotech Start-Up in Dot: GeoMed's Chief Science Officer Robyn Hannigan works in a lab at UMass-Boston. Photo by Mike DeehanThis kind of funding is an important next step for biotech startups like Eutropics, said company cofounder and CEO Dr. Michael Cardone. The money will go towards hiring more researchers, a business development staffer and a program manager, Cardone said.

Another medical research company recently found a home in Dorchester. GeoMed Analytical is a charter partner at UMass Boston’s new Venture Development Center. Located in the university’s Wheatley Hall, the center is a new effort by UMass to foster fledgling hi-tech and life sciences companies. Its facility includes office space, meeting rooms and laboratories catered to new companies, with the added benefit of being a part of the UMass community. The VDC offers researchers help with the parts of operating a company that might not come as naturally to them as science – business development, administration and governmental coordination.

Labortory space is an important consideration for the biotech community. As research projects at hospitals and institutes spin off into independent startup companies, the researchers need to find workspace with the right scientific infrastructure for an affordable price. Many young companies are fleeing the high rents of Cambridge, Cardone said, in favor of less expensive sites in the suburbs. It is these companies, flush with state and federal funding, that the VDC wishes to attract.

Another important aspect of Dorchester’s potential as a biotech haven comes from the Boston Redevelopment Authority’s LifeTech Boston program, which assists companies in planning, permitting, and other areas of development. The program has been responsible for achievments such as placing researchers in the Merck Research Lab in the Longwood Medical Area, the fostering of a biotech manufacturing operation along the South Boston waterfront and several other initiatives. LifeTech collaborates with UMass to bring solutions to companies looking for assistance, said BRA’s Martina Toponarski, who heads up the program.

“We work with a larger team here, an economic development [team], a planning team, to foster the growth of industry and keep the vitality of the industry in the city.” Toponarski said.

For now, Cardone maintains an office for Eutronics out of his home in Savin Hill and labratories in Woburn. The three year old company is at a point where it needs the established connections of the Cambridge area and the readily available laboratory space in the city’s suburbs, he said.
“We’re doing drug development at a level that’s getting close to a commercial level and so we need to be in a setting where there’s support at a high level,” Cardone said.

But the scientist isn’t opposed to eventually maintaining a lab in Dorchester; although the neighborhood lacks certain infrastructure amenities, it provides a culture in which young biotech companies would find ideal, he said.

“You go to Cambridge and its all kind of the same thing: everybody thinks the same way and they do the same thing. Here it’s just different. There are a lot of different people doing a lot of different stuff.” Cardone said. “I think it’s a good idea for startup companies to be outside of the mainstream and get some more of that eclectic energy that you can find here in [Dorchester]” Cardone said.
Although keeping these companies thriving in Dorchester is an important goal for the community, it may seem less significant when compared to the work done by the scientists themselves. The researchers behind Eutropics discovered a protein that is crucial to the development of certain forms of blood-based cancers, such as multiple myeloma. The drug the company is developing will potentially target that protein and help control the cancer in a way that has never been done before. Another facet of their work was invented by the company’s co-founder, Harvard Medical School professor and Dana Farber Cancer researcher Anthony Letai, who created a method of determining how a patient will respond to the unique protein treatment.

GeoMed Analytical’s research is based around how the body uses and stores minerals. According to Robyn Hannigan, GeoMed’s Chief Science Officer, the company uses techniques developed in environmental mineral research to better understand how minerals are used biologically.

“This may influence how diagnostics are done. It will also help us understand better how bone diseases progress, and that will also help us understand how to prevent them,” said Hannigan.