Powerhouse Collaborator, MassBio’s President & CEO, Bob Coughlin Optimistically Embraces Industry Changes

Innovation That Matters
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MassBio is a 35-year standing life sciences trade association consisting of over 1,300 member companies. Today, their programs, services, and industry-critical mass influence, allows them to be truly patient-driven. By utilizing their unparalleled network of innovative companies and industry thought leaders, MassBio is able to advance policy, promote education, and push for innovative cross-industry collaborations.

Leading MassBio is President and CEO, Bob Coughlin. Bob focuses on promoting industry growth through the advancement of Massachusetts’ leadership in the life sciences, adding value to the healthcare system, and improving patient lives. Another vital focus for Bob and MassBio is on ensuring collaboration and innovation between the government, industry, and academic sectors.

Before joining MassBio, Bob served as the Undersecretary of Economic Development within Governor Deval Patrick’s administration, where he prioritized both healthcare, economic development issues, and advocated for the Massachusetts life sciences industry. Prior to that, he was elected as State Representative to the 11th Norfolk district for three terms. He has also held senior executive positions in the environmental services, capital management and venture capital industries.

Currently, Bob serves on the board of directors for The Schwartz Center for Compassionate Healthcare. He is also a member of the Scientific Advisory Board at Boston Children’s Hospital. Recently, Bob sat down with Rich Soll and the WuXi AppTec Content Team to discuss MassBio, their role in the COVID-19 response, industry response takeaways, future preparations, and Bob’s insights into our path forward.

WuXi AppTec: What makes Massachusetts unique in the life sciences?

Bob Coughlin: We have a critical mass of companies, we have a critical mass of highly educated people, and we have 122 colleges and universities in this state, which is one-sixth the size of California. The high talent pool is a key resource for the life sciences here. We not only educate our own here, we educate the best and brightest from all over the country and around the world.

WuXi AppTec: Where does MassBio fit in?

Bob Coughlin: Our mission at MassBio is to leverage Massachusetts’ leadership role in the life sciences. We ensure that academia, industry and government are working collaboratively, so together, we can continue to drive innovation. We do that through many different programs and services we offer.

Many folks think of us as a lobby entity, but in fact, government affairs amounts to only 15-20% of what we do. Our Innovation Services group works with the amazing tech transfer offices, including five of the top six NIH-funded academic medical centers in the country. They manage our MassCONNECT mentoring program where we funnel those companies, along with other under-the-radar startups, into our Pharma / Partnering days for engagement in business development activities.

We help companies grow and raise much-needed capital through traditional fundraising forms or partnerships with large Pharma companies. We help recruit Pharma companies to this area to the extent that today, 18 of the top 20 Pharma companies have a significant physical presence here. We worked closely with the state government on economic development, in a life sciences initiative, which started in 2008 and resulted in a $1 billion investment over 10 years. This really put us in a position to succeed.

We offer professional development forums and business services to member companies. For example, MassBio Edge enables our members to procure services and goods at bulk rates, thus offering significant savings, so our membership can work more effectively and collaboratively to address the unmet needs of patients.

WuXi AppTec: MassBio has been very involved in taking action during the COVID-19 crisis.

Bob Coughlin: Yes, when COVID-19 was coming, we realized early on that this was a particularly tricky virus that could perhaps turn into a pandemic, which it did. Our partners in the health care system were saying, “We are unable to keep our supply chain flowing as it relates to PPE, ventilators, lab supplies, etc. We’re not going to be able to order a lot of the things that come from supply chain partners overseas, because those folks overseas were shut down.”

It then became revealing to me — we live in a world of “just in time” inventory. As a consequence, our health care providers were not going to have the proper protection required to care for patients infected with COVID-19. This became our call to action.

WuXi AppTec: What action did you take?

Bob Coughlin: We have 1300 members in MassBio and there are 500 members in Mass Medic, our counterpart in the medical device space. We thought that if we could inventory in short order what was existing in our member company supply rooms, we may be in a position to help fill some of those voids during the crisis.

That led to the creation of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Emergency SupplyHub, known as the SupplyHub, where we could inventory everything our members were able to donate to health care workers. Then, on the needs side, we were able to relay requests from frontline health care providers to the state’s Command Center.

First, within 24 hours of initiation, we had close to 200 member companies donate what they had in inventory. Second, more than 500 people volunteered their time to help with supply chain procurement opportunities while also procuring supplies for the hospitals. Third, and most spectacularly, was the giving of commitment by member company volunteers. They would go to the battlefield when frontline health care workers needed relief due to fatigue or sickness. This included doctors, nurses, pharmacists, lab technicians and others.

Information was then provided daily to the State and to the Command Center, which then triaged the supply inventory based on needs. Through partnership with the National Guard and Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), the supplies (PPE) were distributed to the sites.

The state took over all the operations a few weeks ago, which allowed us to set our energies on getting people back to work.

WuXi AppTec: What did you do there especially to be compliant with social distancing?

Bob Coughlin: We are working on a program called RESET. Phase 1, which is now completed, was ensuring the buildout of the SupplyHub with sufficient PPE; you can find that information on our website. The next phase focuses on returning more non-essential employees to work.

WuXi AppTec: What area do you consider to be of strength of Massachusetts?

Bob Coughlin: Our strength is true innovation. Diagnostics, therapeutics, and vaccines go hand in hand, yet who would have thought that in our lifetime the most important thing to the world economy would be a vaccine? In Massachusetts, we have a critical mass in all three areas; there is no better place than here to solve this problem.

WuXi AppText: What do you think is the most important lessons learned so far?

Bob Coughlin: We have serious supply chain issues in the US that hamper our progress. Despite significant growth in large molecule manufacturing in Massachusetts, certain materials are not readily available so that hinders progress. Yet, this serves as a stark reminder to how essential the life sciences are to the economy in Massachusetts.

WuXi AppTec: Yes, health of the life science industry is critically important in Massachusetts.

Bob Coughlin: I’ve lived it every day for the last 18 years. My son has cystic fibrosis, but he now has a therapy that works – but it took 18 years to get there. That is why this industry means so much to me—it’s personal. People who once took health for granted think much differently now if they are living through the COVID-19 pandemic, especially if a loved one has suffered from infection.

WuXi AppTec: What are two critical areas MassBio has been addressing?

First, collaboration is more important than ever because we are in this together; everyone needs to contribute if we are to succeed. The one thing that I’ve noticed, and was inspired by, is the level of collaboration not only between various sectors in the life sciences, but also between the private sector and government.

Second, the COVID-19 situation today is unprecedented and we need to better prepare for the future. People are very scared and worried; there is so much misinformation. To help elected officials better communicate with their constituencies, MassBio has established various kinds of briefings, some daily, for elected officials and government officials, especially ones where the complex science needs to be distilled down.

WuXi AppTec: Looking to the future– will things be different?

Bob Coughlin: Yes, a new norm will result: one that depends on virtual connections and measurable social distancing. I would imagine, until an effective vaccine is in place, we will incentivize infectious disease R&D. We will see more cross-state collaborations and more transparency between elected officials, their constituencies, and supporting industries like ours.

I’m going to continue to be an optimist, because I know that this time period is going to change the way we work long-term. I think companies are going to realize that people can work remotely and increase productivity. And really, I think we’re going to be more flexible and nimble as an industry. I think that’s a great thing.  

WuXi AppTec: What should be our priority?

Bob Coughlin: The most important thing in the world right now is a vaccine; I don’t think you can put a price on it. Our industry has really been showing compassion and willingness to solve problems, and not prioritizing returns. They’re doing the right thing.

Closing out, I think we’re going to continue to see more collaborations between companies and private-public partnerships. At this time, many people would say drugs are too expensive. I would say that drugs are too expensive to invent. If this is forcing us all collectively to get better at how we do what we do, it will be less expensive at the end of the day; we’ll be able to bring even more value to the health care system.      

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