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Marlborough Becomes A Life Sciences Magnet

WORCESTER BUSINESS JOURNAL – Boston Biomedical Associates (BBA) had just five employees in a single Northborough suite when it launched in 1999.

As the biomedical consulting industry grew, BBA expanded its headcount to 52. Those employees worked out of five suites scattered throughout an office building, making it difficult to coordinate across departments, said Mack Rubley, the company’s director of business development.

As the biomedical consulting industry grew, BBA expanded its headcount to 52. Those employees worked out of five suites scattered throughout an office building, making it difficult to coordinate across departments, said Mack Rubley, the company’s director of business development.

And when BBA decided earlier this year to acquire a larger office space, they were drawn to the home of so many other biotechnology and medical device companies: Marlborough.

The city of 39,000 is welcoming nine new life science companies between 2011 and 2014, according to the Marlborough Economic Development Corporation (MEDC). That will make Marlborough home to 29 life sciences firms, the MEDC said, comprising 10 to 20 percent of the city’s businesses.

“It’s an up-and-coming place,” said Jon Delli Priscoli, CEO of First Colony Development, which owns 500,000 square feet of commercial space in Marlborough.

It hasn’t always appeared that way.

Marlborough was reeling after Fidelity Investments and Hewlett-Packard decided to vacate more than 1.25 million square feet of space in 2010 and 2011, leaving the city with a 32-percent commercial vacancy rate, one of the highest in the commonwealth, said Gary Holmes, president of R.W. Holmes, a Wayland-based commercial real estate broker.

The city rebounded quickly in 2012, with companies committing to occupy 1.2 million square feet of commercial space, which the MEDC said was the best performance of any Bay State municipality outside Boston.

At least a third of that growth came in biotechnology or life sciences, Holmes said. That’s to be expected, since the biopharmaceutical industry has expanded its Bay State footprint from 16 million square feet of lab space in 2008 to 20 million square feet, said Peter Abair, director of economic development and global affairs for the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council (MassBio).

Today, Marlborough has a 22-percent vacancy rate, Holmes said, in line with most other towns along Interstate 495.

Refuge From Higher Rents

Start-up research companies often prefer setting up in college towns — such as Cambridge — to have the best access to prospective talent, Abair said.

As these companies mature and elevate their reputations, they often pack their bags and move to suburbs like Marlborough, Abair said, where space is cheaper.

Office space in Marlborough costs just 40 percent of similar digs in Cambridge, Holmes said. Even a community slightly closer to Boston — such as Framingham — would cost $10 to $12 more per square foot than Marlborough, Priscoli said.

The presence of so many other life science firms also sends the message to prospective businesses that the Marlborough area has a sufficiently talented workforce, Abair said.

“Once you start to get momentum, word gets out and you see more action in a particular sector,” Holmes said. “Activity begets more activity.”

More Potential Clients

A cluster of biotechnology firms means lots of current and prospective clients in the neighborhood for a consulting firm like BBA, Rubley said. It also means that smaller companies can have easier access to contract services to help with statistical analysis, clinical trials or regulatory paperwork.

That was appealing to Argo Medical Technologies, which opened its U.S. headquarters in Marlborough in January. The Israeli company has just 10 American employees today, but expects to quickly grow operations once its ReWalk — a device that allows a paralyzed person to walk again — is approved for sale in the U.S.

“If we double, triple or quadruple in size pretty quickly, I’ve still got plenty of other space in Marlborough to go,” CEO Larry Jasinski said.

Marlborough last year became one of just six Central Massachusetts communities to achieve MassBio’s highest rating, meaning the city has biotech spaces ready for business to move into as well as industry-friendly permitting policies. The city changed its zoning laws within the past three years to allow for the siting of laboratory and research facilities by right rather than by special permit, Abair said.

Expediting permitting procedures also allows companies at priority development sites to receive approvals in less than three months, said Tim Cummings, MEDC executive director. Permits for other sites can be obtained within four months, Cummings said.

Businesses also abhor the town meeting format prevalent in most smaller communities and prefer dealing with city governments such as Marlborough’s, Priscoli said, where companies can work with full-time professionals.

Government Knowledge Helps

Municipal expertise is particularly important for biotech firms, Holmes said, since the companies work with hazardous materials that are prohibited under a typical lease agreement. In most communities, Holmes said biotech proposals are subject to intense scrutiny and questioning by municipal leaders and fire officials, who would have to sign off on modifying regulations.

“It’s such a pleasure for anyone in the industry to deal with officials who understand,” Holmes said. Streamlined government also makes it easier to pursue a particular industry. Cummings traveled to Washington D.C. in mid-September to recruit advanced medical manufacturing firms.

Modern infrastructure is also vital for life science companies, who need their waste products to be treated in public sewage plants rather than discharged into the ground, Priscoli said.

Marlborough’s rising popularity comes at a price, though. The value of commercial properties in the city began rising in the spring for the first time since the recession, Holmes said, and Priscoli expects rent prices to rise modestly over the next year or two.

Still, Cummings is predicting consistent growth of the life sciences industry over the next couple of months. And even if the city’s commercial vacancy rate falls below 20 percent, Holmes is confident Marlborough has enough empty space and vacant buildings to grow for at least a decade without pricing out prospective biotech tenants.

This story originally appeared here.