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As Boston Biotech Overflows, Its Suburbs Go Platinum To Soak Up The Spillover

Life sciences properties in Boston and Cambridge are essentially full, giving cities and towns in the surrounding area a golden opportunity to attract high-paying jobs and new development to their borders if they can capitalize.

As these suburban municipalities jockey for spillover growth, local officials have come to view improving their place on the MassBio’s “BioReady Communities” list, a ranking of towns and cities in Massachusetts based on how ready they are to host life sciences companies, as a key to winning the economic development race.

A map showing the Massachusetts cities and towns that have received rankings on MassBio's BioReady Communities list.

Malden Strategic Planning Officer Kevin Duffy, whose town was upgraded to platinum, the list’s top tier, in 2016, said that upgrade was a key goal of its life sciences strategy. 

“Everybody in the Greater Boston area is chasing life sciences,” Duffy said. “We weren't terribly optimistic just because so many other [cities] had a huge head start on us, but we had started to lay the groundwork and do the things that you need to have in order to move up from the bottom ranking.”

Vacancy hit new lows of 1.4% in Boston and 0.8% in Cambridge in the first quarter, according to Colliers’ Q1 report. With the minuscule vacancy rate and lack of buildable land, more developers and companies are starting to branch out to the suburbs. 

And with the pandemic creating higher demand for more life sciences space, towns and cities that may have been overlooked in the past have started to adopt policies to become more attractive to developers and biotech companies searching to find space for manufacturing facilities, a segment that has seen tremendous growth.

The list, launched in 2008, has grown to include 90 towns and cities across Massachusetts that have taken guidance from MassBio to attract developers and biotech companies. Since 2020, three towns have been added to the list and five others have been elevated to platinum as the need for life sciences facilities has risen, said Ben Bradford, vice president of economic development and workforce at MassBio.

The list has four tiers: bronze, silver, gold and platinum. To be given a ranking, a town needs to have specific zoning requirements to allow for biotech labs and manufacturing facilities. To achieve a platinum rank, a town or city’s board of health must adopt National Institutes of Health guidelines, and the community needs to have at least one building permitted for biotech use. 

Kendall Square, pictured on the left side of the river, is the most expensive life sciences market in the country.

As space becomes tighter, developers are looking for more opportunity, whether that means converting underperforming office buildings or buying cheaper space in a town outside of the big clusters.  

“With how tight the vacancy is, a lot of developers are looking at these outlier markets,” said McKenna Teague, vice president for CBRE’s New England Consulting Group.

Communities such as Waltham and Watertown west of Boston have already seen major development, but developers are going north to towns like Burlington and Woburn, which are close to the big life sciences clusters in Boston and Cambridge but are far enough away to offer more opportunity.

“We all know that there's only so much developable land in Cambridge and Kendall Square and not everybody's going to be there,” said Jeff Myers, research director at Colliers. “As we move further out, you're looking for similar traits of proximity. I think that's one of the things that has helped a place like Watertown to get that development. There's land for it, and there are buildings that are ready for conversion.”

Malden's Exchange 200 building, which Berkeley Investments is converting to lab space.

Duffy said he credits the success Malden has seen to its platinum ranking, which the city was awarded after attracting In Vitro AMDET, a Maryland-based cell therapy company, to its downtown back in 2015. 

“They manufactured [cryogenically preserved liver cells] in Maryland, but their market was over in Kendall Square and they decided to move their manufacturing facility closer. They were coming around looking at some spaces that might work, and they had identified a building in Malden,” Duffy said.

Since then, Malden has seen increased interest from developers and companies. In 2018, Berkeley Investments bought property in Malden and began developing 200 Exchange St., a four-story 250K SF mixed-use building in the city’s center that was initially mostly office space. In December, it announced it received financing to convert the building to lab space to meet the rapidly growing demands from life sciences users. 

“The fact [Malden] had a platinum BioReady rating gave us confidence in transitioning and converting the building to lab [space],” said Dan McGrath, senior vice president at Berkeley Investments. “It was a demonstration that the municipality was forward-thinking as it relates to encouraging life science companies to come to the city.”

Berkeley Investments recently bought 18 acres of land in Billerica, another platinum-ranked town, in hopes to develop it into a 200K SF purpose-built GMP building. 

ThermoFisher Scientific's office at 22 Alpha Road in Chelmsford.

Another town, Chelmsford, a suburb on the southern border of Lowell, was bumped up to platinum last year after adopting NIH guidelines and noting the existing life sciences companies that were already operating within the town, including Azenta Life Sciences and Triton Systems. This paved the way for the town to begin marketing and rebranding its business overlay district, Chelmsford Crossroads at 129, to include more biotech. 

“We've really been advocating for our available space and wanting to attract the advanced technologies, the sciences, communications, robotics, things like that,” said Lisa Marrone, Chelmsford’s director of business development. “Our zoning has been very aligned with the market demand with overlay districts and things like that and … the biotech rating was also just another incentive for businesses to look at Chelmsford.”

In 2020, Thermo Fisher Scientific, a Waltham-based life sciences and medical devices company, acquired an 85K SF building on 220 Mill Road in Chelmsford to meet its higher needs for bioprocessing in the state. The company plans to open the facility later this year. 

As more biotech companies and developers begin to flock to suburban towns like Billerica and Chelmsford, more communities need to be ready to welcome them, Bradford said. 

“That’s why this list was created, because we know that it takes the whole commonwealth of Massachusetts to support these companies as they grow,” Bradford said. “As we look at manufacturing as a potential next wave of the life sciences industry in Massachusetts, there's certainly going to be opportunities for even more nontraditional municipalities to get involved.”