Governor Maura Healey joined some of the biggest names in Boston health care to make the pitch. But it was Gladys Vega, a community organizer in Chelsea, who might have sealed the deal.
So went the Healey administration’s effort to woo the newly formed Advanced Research Projects Agency for Health, a.k.a. ARPA-H, during a pivotal Cambridge visit made by a half-dozen ARPA-H staffers on May 25. Healey and state economic development secretary Yvonne Hao teamed up with Mass General Brigham and several business groups to persuade this new federal agency to pick Massachusetts for an ARPA-H office dubbed an “investor catalyst hub.”
This office, wooed by many other states, would help deploy hundreds of millions, if not billions, in federal dollars to solve some of the toughest problems in health care. The larger agency, to be based in the D.C. area, has already started soliciting contracts to tackle tough challenges involving bone and joint regeneration, for example, and implantable devices for remote drug delivery.
Healey and Hao only learned for sure last month that ARPA-H would open the hub at the CIC in Cambridge — where about two dozen staffers and contractor employees will be based, and many more people will work on busy days. But members of the local team say they believe they cinched the competition during that secret pitch meeting in May. Their success underscores how the Boston business community has opened its doors beyond the city’s elites — and grown stronger as a result.
The morning kicked off at LabCentral, the life sciences incubator in Cambridge, with a presentation by Healey, Hao, and state health secretary Kate Walsh.
But attendees said the next panel with Rev. Willie Bodrick, pastor of the Twelfth Baptist Church in Roxbury, and Gladys Vega, leader of La Colaborativa in Chelsea, probably made the more lasting impression. Vega and Bodrick talked about their experiences distributing vaccines for COVID-19 in their respective communities during the early days of the pandemic. It got emotional. At least one ARPA-H visitor was teary-eyed.
Vega saw it as a matter of life or death as she raced from door to door in her immigrant community, alongside vaccine-toting doctors. Yes, Vega had to make some noise initially, to draw attention to the need. But Chelsea’s eventual success story in turning the tide on COVID shows how the region’s billion-dollar hospital groups can work with community organizations like hers.
And it was a potent reminder to everyone in the room at LabCentral that day: No matter what kind of magic you create in a lab, it can’t succeed without buy-in from the public. Vega said it was nerve-racking for her to be on deck after the governor, on such a pivotal occasion. But she had an important message, and rose to the challenge.
Consortium management firm VentureWell then outlined the nuts and bolts of how it would run the Cambridge office, should ARPA-H decide to come. Important stuff, but not as emotional as what Vega had to say.
After a morning at LabCentral, the group walked down Main Street toward Kendall Square for lunch at the Broad Institute. Hao wanted to show off this life sciences epicenter — the ecosystem of MIT and some of the country’s biggest biotechs that surround it. While at the Broad, the crew talked shop as they munched on box lunches with salmon, chicken, and vegetarian options (and mini cannoli for dessert). There were several more presentations, including one via videoconference with potential out-of-state research partners, the University of Washington and the Cherokee Nation Health Services.
By 3 p.m., the ARPA-H visitors were on their way home.
Kenn Turner, head of the quasi-public Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, felt like everything ran with military precision. And given Turner’s background as a Navy officer, he knows these sorts of things hinge on proper planning.
In March, when ARPA-H began soliciting bids for its investor catalyst hub, Healey and Hao brought in Turner and then Chris Coburn, the chief innovation officer at Mass General Brigham, to help lead the effort. Coburn roped in other MGB executives as well as government contractors VentureWell and Battelle. And they joined representatives for trade groups MassMEDIC and the Massachusetts Hospital Association for twice-daily videoconference meetings.
The team scrapped plans for a bus tour after learning the feds only had a five-hour window. They were going to have to make every minute count.
That meant ensuring a star-studded luncheon with dozens of attendees such as MGB chief executive Anne Klibanski, venture capitalist Jean-François Formela, Abiomed president Andrew Greenfield, and UMass president Marty Meehan — to name a few.
The pitch team also rolled out the stats: Massachusetts is No. 1 per capita in NIH funding, for example, and home to one of the nation’s two biggest medical device markets, not to mention VC and PE firms that inject, on average, $13 billion a year into life sciences companies.
All of that matters. But Vega made it personal, with her poignant reminder why everyone was there.
Craig Gravitz, an ARPA-H administrator overseeing the site selection, came away impressed by the convening power that the Massachusetts team demonstrated, both locally and across the country — crucial for ARPA-H’s “hub and spoke” model. And the presentation from Vega and Bodrick dovetailed with Gravitz’s own vision for the agency. It’s one thing to create something amazing in a lab. It’s another thing to put it to the test in the real world. The human aspect of any technological innovation, Gravitz said, is as important as the technology itself.
What the ARPA-H delegation saw that day was one of the best examples of ensuring that “desirability,” he said. Medical professionals went out into the community to help people understand the problem, and believe in a solution. If ARPA-H is to succeed, he added, it needs that superpower.
And that’s why this pitch wasn’t simply about bragging rights, or new jobs. As Hao puts it, this was about curing diseases, improving people’s lives.
The CEOs and PhDs may have made that message clear, during that site visit. But it was a community activist’s testimony that drove it home.