August 7, 2017
Focus on Biotechnology

O'Sullivan's impact on Worcester goes beyond biotech

Emily Micucci
In addition to his role at MBI (here at its Gateway Park location), Kevin O'Sullivan helps shape the community by serving on boards like the Worcester Economic Development Coordinating Council and Reliant Medical Group.

Kevin O'Sullivan first showed up on the Worcester economic development scene as a newly-minted college graduate in the late 1970s.

It was a time of desperation, with double-digit unemployment and inflation, and job prospects weren't good for a 21-year-old with no experience.

"Worcester's manufacturing base was really hurting. You could very clearly see it going south, and going across seas," O'Sullivan, the president and CEO of Massachusetts Biomedical Initiatives (MBI) said.

In Worcester, O'Sullivan – who spent most of his childhood in the city – found an outlet for his youthful enthusiasm and background in community development, which was his minor at Springfield College, where he earned a physical education degree.

Now 62 and with a master's degree in public administration from Clark University, the ever-energetic O'Sullivan still has a passion for pushing Worcester forward.

For the past 14 years, O'Sullivan has channeled his talents as a mover and shaker as chief executive at MBI, the biotechnology incubator founded in 1985 as a partnership between the public and private sectors to propel health and life sciences commercial development.

New wave manufacturing

In MBI, the idea was to create a biotechnology corridor anchored by Greater Boston and Worcester. The organization began incubating startup companies in the late 1990s when O'Sullivan joined, becoming president and CEO in 2003. Today, MBI has three incubator sites in the city, and O'Sullivan is playing an integral role in developing the next wave of biotechnology development: small-scale biomanufacturing.

O'Sullivan, who served eight years in the Massachusetts Legislature from 1987 to 1995 and worked two separate stints in community development and marketing at the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce in the 1980s and 1990s, sees Worcester as an ideal place for clinical-stage companies and larger pharmaceutical companies working on new cures for diseases to manufacture their products for development purposes, such as clinical trials.

Michael Matin, CEO, HDL Therapeutics

City leaders are targeting companies needing to produce relatively small batches of molecules for therapies to treat cancer and other diseases. Worcester pitches itself to companies as being part of the Massachusetts research and development Mecca, but offering a better value than the pricey Greater Boston area, O'Sullivan said.

"You can't biomanufacture things in the Boston Metro area because it's too damn expensive. You sure as heck can do them, though, out here in Worcester," O'Sullivan said.

Building a biomanufacturing base

O'Sullivan and his economic development colleagues have made a successful case for Worcester's role in leading widespread biomanufacturing development in Central Massachusetts and beyond. Learning their vision, Gov. Charlie Baker and local lawmakers gave full support to naming the Worcester Business Development Corp. the developer of a 44-acre biomanufacturing campus on the site of the former Worcester State Hospital on Plantation Street, adjacent to the UMass Medicine Science Park on the University of Massachusetts Medical School campus.

The announcement of WBDC's biomanufacturing campus was made in September, and the organization is planning a marketing campaign this fall to attract tenants.

Timothy Murray, president and CEO of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, credited O'Sullivan with the success of the UMass Medicine Science Park, which O'Sullivan worked on in the 1980s while with the chamber.

"Kevin brings a real understanding and perspective and appreciation of biotechnoloy and biomanufacturing and how its has helped Worcester's economy," said Murray, who counts O'Sullivan as one of his mentors.

But whatever success Worcester has in developing a biomanufacturing hub, O'Sullivan hopes it serves as a catalyst for the sector in other parts of the state. The Lowell area, and the North Shore are two other viable regions for biomanufacturing, O'Sullivan said, and development across all regions will only serve to strengthen what he has longed considered a biotechnology corridor, anchored by Worcester and Greater Boston.

Helping the startups

Meanwhile, at MBI, O'Sullivan is an unwavering source of support to the clinical-stage companies renting laboratory and office space at MBI locations, including two Prescott Street locations within Worcester Polytechnic Institute's Gateway Park complex, and a smaller, Barber Avenue location near the former Higgins Armory Museum.

O'Sullivan explained MBI's role is to provide the space and equipment early-stage companies need, so they can focus on commercialization efforts.

"I love hanging out with people who are smarter than I am. It's fascinating, and I really respect what they're doing. I may not understand it completely, but what we try to do is to provide them easy access to the science. Let us worry about everything else," Sullivan said.

MBI has graduated 90 companies since its founding and 68 have become successful businesses outside the incubator, according to MBI data. Nearly 90 percent of MBI graduate companies have located in Massachusetts, while just over a quarter have located in Worcester.

Today, MBI houses 27 tenant companies, including 125 employees. One of them is Michael Matin, CEO of HDL Therapeutics, a Florida startup testing equipment in one of MBI's Gateway Park labs.

He said MBI is dramatically different from other incubators because of its customer service, and O'Sullivan is the driving force, with a relentless positive attitude and willingness to help.

For example, O'Sullivan was able to get a solution from Reliant Medical Group, the Worcester physician group of which he is a trustee, which HDL needed to conduct important testing of its product last month, after a mishap with the company's supplier.

"That energy and enthusiasm is contagious," Matin said.

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