When I first moved to the Boston area, the region was a hotbed of digital technology, with companies including Data General, Digital Equipment Corp., and Wang flourishing, many along Route 128, once touted by local politicians as “America’s Technology Highway.” EDN, where I began my career as a trade journalist, was headquartered in downtown Boston and was for a short period the largest magazine in the U.S.—by page count, not circulation.
The situation has changed drastically, with biotech firms now dominating. Scott Kirsner at the Boston Globe traces the rise of this new industry back four decades, when you might have seen MIT and Harvard professors and students in Cambridge’s Kendall Square talking about new gene-splicing tools. You would have also seen anti-gene-splicing protestors, who feared scientists creating new Frankenstein monsters.
At the time, apart from MIT and Harvard, “Cambridge felt like a manufacturing town that had seen better days,” Kirsner writes. He cites MIT professor Phillip Sharp as feeling surrounded by candy, textile, and leather factories. Indeed, if Route 128 was dotted by computer companies (Digital’s famous Mill was further out, in Maynard), the New England Confectionary Co. building—with its multicolored water tank painted to look like a roll of Necco wafers, dominated the Cambridge skyline.
Despite concerns of many citizens, Cambridge opened the door to gene-splicing research. The originally skeptical mayor said, according to Kirsner, that he had “no fear of recombinant DNA as long as it paid taxes.” By early 1977, Kirsner writes, a citizens’ committee “…had proposed a framework to ensure that any DNA-related experiments were done under fairly stringent safety controls, and Cambridge became the first city in the world to regulate research using genetic material.”
Subsequently, Biogen opened a lab in the city in 1982, and others—finding resistance in Boston and other nearby towns—followed. Today, writes Kirsner, Swiss biopharma company Novartis is the largest private employer in Cambridge (with about 2,200 employees), having opened a $600 million expansion of a research campus in December. And Biogen, he adds, has the first or second largest capitalization of any Massachusetts company.
“Cambridge had the benefit of MIT and Harvard nudging it to create a permitting system for DNA experimentation,” writes Kirsner. But he quotes Sharp, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1993, as saying the city also had an early “major public immersion” in the topic. Adds Kirsner, “That’s an important lesson for elected officials regulating new fields like airborne drones, car-sharing services, Airbnb rentals, or the newest scientific frontier, gene editing.”
Kirsner notes that an anti-gene-splicing protester of 40 years ago is now pitching a biotech venture-capital firm.