A big investment and a little luck bring a $1.1 billion genetics lab

A leading genetics laboratory based in Maine committed today to establishing a $1.1 billion research institute at the UConn Health Center, a deal that provides an unexpectedly rapid return on Connecticut’s new bioscience initiative — and on a state official’s subscription to a Downeast weekly paper.

The lure for Jackson Laboratory of Bar Harbor, Maine to select Connecticut over other suitors for its genomic medicine project was the Bioscience Connecticut initiative that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy rushed through the General Assembly last spring.

“Jackson Lab’s desire to build a new facility was brought to my attention in late June,” Malloy said today, joined by company officials, top Democratic and Republican lawmakers, and UConn’s leadership. “I’ve been focused on it ever since.”

Malloy Jackson Lab announcement

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy announcing the new genetics lab.

The administration’s biggest economic development coup–UConn officials say the institute will be a major step toward establishing the state as a bioscience center–is attributable to a major public investment, and a generous dollop of serendipity.

The high-tech project that Malloy says will rank as one of his administration’s most important accomplishments came onto its radar via Timothy Bannon’s mail subscription to a weekly paper, The Bar Harbor Times.

Bannon, who is Malloy’s chief of staff, frequents Mount Desert, Maine, near Bar Harbor, where his wife owns a second home and Jackson has a 43-acre campus on the Gulf of Maine, near Acadia National Park. For years, Bannon was intrigued by lab, the region’s major employer.

Last June, his wife, former UConn official Lori Aronson, read an article in the weekly about the collapse of Jackson’s plans to open a research facility in Sarasota, Fla., due to the evaporation of proffered economic-development aid.

“She said, ‘I think there may be an opportunity here,’ ” Bannon said.

Bannon clipped the article, scanned it into a computer and emailed a copy to Catherine H. Smith, the commissioner of economic development. Her top deputy, Kip Bergstrom, soon was on the phone to Maine to seek a meeting.

Around dawn on July 27, Bergstrom was speeding north in his Volvo wagon with Bannon and Marc Lalande, the chairman of genetics and developmental biology at UConn’s medical school. Bergstrom shaved 45 minutes off the typical drive time of 6½ hours.

By the end of the day, Malloy and Smith joined the trio by video-conference from UConn Health Center in Farmington. Susan Herbst, the UConn president, appeared on a split screen from the main campus in Storrs.

Over the summer, Jackson and UConn came to see the $864 million Bioscience Connecticut initiative as an opportunity for a partnership between a non-profit laboratory, which is the world’s leading producer of research mice, and public research university tasked by a new governor with becoming an engine of economic development.

Charles E. Hewett, the chief operating officer and executive vice president of Jackson, said he saw a unique  opportunity in entering the state now, as UConn is still finalizing its plans for a fully funded, major expansion of its research facilities and faculty. He also acknowledged another bit of serendipity besides Bannon’s subscription to the Bar Harbor Times: a change in fiscal priorities in Florida.

Officials in Naples, Fla., originally approached Jackson, but a proposed aid package generated local opposition. Sarasota then made a pitch, but Gov. Rick Scott declined to meet with Jackson’s executives to talk about the project, according to the Naples News.

“Many times, things work out for the best, and I can’t tell you how delighted we are to be here in Connecticut with the governor’s bioscience research triangle, situated between Boston and New York,” said Hewett, who holds a doctorate from Yale. “We believe in a decade’s time, perhaps less, working with UConn Health, working with Yale, working with the other institutions in this area, that we can make Connecticut a true powerhouse, a true destination for personalized medicine.”

Dr. Edison T. Liu, an oncologist who is about to take over as the new chief executive of Jackson, flew in from Singapore, where he is currently based, to participate in the negotiations. He also joined Malloy at the press conference at the state Capitol.

“The critical mass is here. The quality of science is here. The concentration and the will to have this happen is here,” said Liu, who once was a medical professor at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, the prototype for other states trying to establish research triangles.

On Monday night, the board of Jackson formally approved the partnership, which will require the company to eventually invest $809 million in Connecticut through federal research grants, philanthropy and its income. The state will provide $291 million, including a $192 million construction loan.

The new Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine intially will have 173,000 square feet of lab space, with plans to eventually reach 250,000 square feet. With initial employment of 300, the lab is projected to eventually employ 661, with another 6,200 indirect or spin-off jobs, according to state officials.

On Thursday night, Malloy invited legislative leaders of both parties to join him, UConn officials and administration officials at Max’s Oyster Bar in West Hartford to celebrate the partnership with top executives from Jackson.

“This is how we begin to reinvent Connecticut,” Malloy said.

The project will come before the General Assembly next month at its special session on jobs. The Republican minority leaders, Rep. Lawrence F. Cafero Jr. of Norwalk and Sen. John P. McKinney of Fairfield, had objected to the rushed approval of the originally UConn bioscience initiative.

Both leaders attended the press conference, saying they are confident of bipartisan approval after a detailed examination by the legislature.

“In this particular case, the obvious concerns come up: How many jobs are we going to create? What kind of tax revenue will we reap from this kind of an initiative,” Cafero said. He added that aside from jobs, there will be clear benefits to UConn’s academic and research capabilities.

“There’s a lot of questions that need to be asked, and there’s a lot of answers that need to be given, but this is about a process of getting to yes,” Cafero said. “It is our hope that if all our questions are answered that we can make this the cornerstone of our jobs session in late October.”

Cafero, who had been briefed about the proposal by Malloy and Bannon earlier in the week, publicly teased the chief of staff for his enthusiasm about the project.

“This is the kind of thing that gets you on your way,” Bannon said later. “This is an opportunity of stunning dimension.”