Square Roots: Cambridge’s Culture of Innovation

innovationPhoto courtesy of Living Proof

Sharing progressive politics and reputations as hubs of innovation, Boston and San Francisco are in many ways twin cities. But when it comes to tech advances, an important assist from Cambridge just might tip the scales in winning the sibling rivalry.

“I have a unique perspective, in that I’ve now worked in the center of two major biotech clusters: the Bay Area and Cambridge. I can tell you that there’s nothing out there that rivals the energy and innovation happening in Cambridge right now.”

So says Craig Wheeler, CEO of Momenta Pharmaceuticals, one of the most exciting companies in Cambridge. Wheeler started his career in 1979 as a chemical engineer at a company with offices at One Broadway – back when Kendall Square was nothing but “old tanning yards and paint factories.” After years in California where he commanded Chiron, an established major biotech firm with $8 billion in revenue, Wheeler is back – just two blocks from where he started – and leading a still-young but fastgrowing startup in a sparkling neighborhood that hardly resembles the one he knew.

“I’ve come full circle,” he says. “And I’m really excited.”

There’s good reason to be. You don’t need anecdotal evidence from a seasoned pro to know that Cambridge is the current epicenter for innovation on the East Coast. Seduced by immediate access to academic engines and research institutions, the list of major players planting flags here is growing. And though it’s true that a never-ending encroachment of Novartis, Biogen and Pfizersized companies doesn’t bode well for the ever-escalating cost of startup space, there is still a pipeline of small but brilliant bootstrapping newbies eager to power this exciting culture. City mandates (like setasides for startup space), the work of organizations like MassChallenge (the world’s largest accelerator program) and access to resources like the Cambridge Innovation Center (not to mention the allure of increasingly sexy bar and restaurant scene) don’t hurt, either.

While the local presence of recognizable brands like Amazon and Facebook tend to steal the headlines, the pharmaceutical and biotech businesses are fueling things in a big way. So we chose three emergent players from that category that highlight the success stories Cambridge’s innovation culture has shaped.

WHO STARTED IT UP: Founded in 2001, Momenta is one of many companies that arose from research at MIT’s Langer Lab, named for the David H. Koch Institute professor Robert S. Langer, a legendary biotech innovator with more than 500 patents issued worldwide. Seeds for Momenta were planted in the ‘90s, when eventual co-founders Ram Sasisekharan (now an MIT professor of biological engineering) and Ganesh V. Kaundinya (still the company’s chief scientific officer) discovered how to unravel and sequence the structural arrangement of complex sugars, something that had long stymied researchers.

WHY IT MATTERS: What Sasiekharan and Kaundinya discovered was, basically, reverse engineering – and once you can take something apart, you can look at its pieces, turn them around and eventually, figure out how, with a few tweaks, the finished whole could be improved.

WHAT HAS IT DONE: With its ability to characterize complex structures, Momenta works to engineer medicines that are innovative and more affordable. Its initial breakthrough was the development of M-Enox, a generic version of the medicine Lovenox, an important anticoagulant for treating blood clots and heart attacks. Momenta estimates that M-Enox has saved the US healthcare system hundreds of millions of dollars and counting.

WHERE IT IS GOING: After its 2010 launch, M-Enox became the largest single launch of an injectable product in US history: more than $1 billion in its first year of sales. Momenta now employs about 300 people and is looking to grow. The FDA is currently reviewing its second generic candidate, a version of Copaxone, which is used for treating multiple sclerosis. On top of that, the company is using its expertise to develop its own products, including a drug designed to treat advanced pancreatic cancer.

HOW CAMBRIDGE PLAYS ITS PART: Even as the company grows, CEO Craig Wheeler says it is vital to retain the startup sensibility that the greater Cambridge culture imbues. “The community side of Cambridge is a real magnet for the kinds of people we hire,” says Wheeler. “We hire intellectual people that want to live in a multi-cultural environment. Many of our employees are foreign-born, and we’re fifty-fifty men and women. We want to be in a community that values diversity.”

WHO STARTED IT UP: Merrimack was founded by a team of scientists from MIT and Harvard, including Michael Yaffe, esteemed professor of biological engineering, and Peter Sorger, head of the Harvard Program in Therapeutic Science. Together they developed Network Biology, a multidisciplinary approach of math, biology, computer modeling and other methods that study the complex ways in which molecules interact and send signals to living cells.

WHY IT MATTERS: Treating human disease too often becomes a matter of “throwing things at symptoms,” says Robert Mulroy, president and CEO. Imagine all the complex molecular interactions that lead to cancer – Merrimack’s main area of concentration – and it’s easy to understand why that can be ineffectual. Disease works like a weather system, explains Mulroy; rather than manufacture umbrellas, Merrimack would rather unravel the complicated machinations that create stormy, illness-causing misfires in cellular dynamics.

WHAT IT HAS DONE: Merrimack has established a full pipeline. It currently has six different cancer-fighting drugs in preclinical development, manufacturing the materials at its own 4,000-square foot Cambridge facility.

WHERE IT IS GOING: One of them, MM-398, has entered Phase 3 of study, typically the final step before review by the FDA. MM-398 would be a chemotherapy drug that would follow the natural blood flow of a tumor, thereby delivering a direct, concentrated attack while minimizing its exposure to healthy tissues. If all goes well, Merrimack would commercialize the medicine – allowing the company to deepen its investments in other areas of research and development.

HOW CAMBRIDGE PLAYS ITS PART: Just as its research relies on understanding complex relationships, Merrimack is the cumulative result of vital collaborations – about 60 active right now – with other pharmaceutical companies, including local institutions from Harvard Medical School to Dana Farber. “The thing you could never reproduce about the Cambridge area is the base of universities and medical centers and the convergence of ideas and exchange of learning that takes place,” says Mulroy. “Something else important here is that failure is okay. That keeps people trying, encouraging serial entrepreneurship. That’s the culture all around.”

WHO STARTED IT UP: Living Proof is what happens when scientists take on the salon world. Another venture born in the Langer Lab, Living Proof started through a partnership with an international venture capital firm that would patent new molecules for use in shampoos, conditioners, straighteners and other hair care products. In tow were celeb stylists Ward Stegerhoek of New York and Mitch Derosa of Boston, lending a different kind of industry expertise.

WHY IT MATTERS: Life-saving science is obviously vital, but sometimes it’s nice to have reminders that the kind of research going down in world-class laboratories can be directed towards something as (deceptively) simple as having a good hair day.

WHAT IT HAS DONE: The award-winning products owe much of their success to two Living Proof-discovered molecules: OFPMA, which creates a thin shield repelling dirt and oil, while keeping humidity from wreaking frizzy havoc, and PBAE, a volumizer that creates microscopic thickening dots on hair strands.

WHERE IT IS GOING: Considering that “The Rachel” may go down as the single most famous women’s haircut in history, it says a lot that Jennifer Aniston recently became not only a celebrity spokesperson for the company – but an investor, too.