Idle Factories Become Laboratories In Worcester's New Economy

Download Audio

WORCESTER, Mass. — It’s easy for Dennis Guberski to see the potential in an old industrial building. After all, he’s the son of a tool-and-die man.

"My dad was a turret lay operator at Van Norman Machine Shop," Guberski says.

With his stocky build and stern face, Guberski even looks like a mill-era worker, save for his slightly disheveled hair, that maybe gives a hint of his Ph.D.

Guberski is a geneticist. His company, Biomedical Research Models, has made its home in the same industrial factories that forged the wealth of his father’s generation.

The New Worcester Economy

Across Worcester today, a growing bio-tech sector is generating new economic life for the city. The same buildings that once churned out textiles, crankshafts, wire and train couplings are now turning into offices, condos and, increasingly, laboratories.

Lighter traffic. Cheaper housing. Those are just some of the selling points that attract employees to Worcester.

"When we built this out," Guberski says, "the city gave us this silver hammer award."

"If it was real silver I would have hawked it by now, but it’s painted silver," he says, chuckling.

City officials are happy to see workers return to these industrial buildings. During World War II, the building Guberski's company is housed in made armor for tanks. Now, Guberski’s company is researching ways for people to shield themselves against auto-immune diseases.

Guberski runs several laboratories in Worcester. He spins around to the research sites he oversees in his black SUV — something he couldn’t do in Boston.

"At this time of day, 3 in the afternoon," he says, "if you tried to go three miles in Boston, it would take you 20 minutes. It’s taking you five minutes from facility to facility here."

The Perks

Lighter traffic. Cheaper housing. Those are just some of the selling points that attract employees to Worcester. Those lower costs work in favor of employers, too, says Craig Mello, a Nobel Prize-winning scientist at the UMass Medical School in Worcester.

"The dollars that are spent out here, the money goes further," Mello says. "Literally, if you get a federal grant here at the University of Massachusetts for the kind of research I do, I can hire one more person on that grant than if I was working in Boston."

Mello says researchers and entrepreneurs are taking notice. They also see all the educated workers coming out of the city’s university cluster, the medical school, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, the pharmacy college and the nearby veterinary medical school. Mello says it used to be that when he presented his promising research in Boston, he’d get job offers.

"And it’s funny because lately when I’m in Boston giving seminars, I’ve had a lot people saying: ‘Are you guys hiring?’," he says, laughing.

Worcester Is Hiring

After all, Worcester is hiring. Right now the medical school is building a $400 million addition. It will house 100 new faculty members in translational medicine, a key area that turns discoveries into therapies — just the sort of thing that can spin off new companies. In fact, that’s Worcester’s strength right now: start-ups, such as Averica Discovery Services.

CEO Jeff Kiplinger used to work for Pfizer, and he lives in Brookline. Setting up shop in Worcester let him recruit workers who don’t want to live in Boston or even Worcester. Most of his employees live in small towns.

"It’s a different lifestyle," Kiplinger says.

"You look for the school system, you look for the two-acre lots, you look for the house that backs up on a small lake, some place so you have a nice view."

Keeping New Businesses Happy

But the same lifestyle and low costs that draw some companies like Averica to Worcester can just as easily steal them away someday.

GlycoSolutions is a good example. Elizabeth Higgins started the company in a Worcester incubator lab space for start-ups. Now sales are soaring. She needs more room, and she’s moving her company to cheaper lab space — in Marlborough, even though she feels loyalty to Worcester for helping her get her start.

"I’ve grown very fond of Worcester," Higgins says. "But it’s a business decision."

Higgins wishes Worcester would do more to keep its new-found companies. That means tax breaks. It means investing in the schools. It means better transportation.

Higgins says Worcester city leaders aren’t doing enough.

"They have to realize that they are at a disadvantage to Cambridge and other areas," she says. "They have to make it more attractive for companies to want to be here."

Start-ups do want to be here. But there are really no mid-size bio-tech firms based in Worcester. Abbott Research has a sizable presence, but it's a Chicago-area company. Developing larger life sciences firms would be an important step for Worcester's economy.

One company with larger potential is RXi Pharmaceuticals. Nobel Laureate Craig Mello co-founded the company to develop new medicines from his Nobel Prize-winning breakthrough. He's not the CEO, but he advises researchers there.

"I’d love to see RXi grow to a staff of 30,000 from currently 30 or wherever we’re at," Mello says. "The main goal of course is to help people. And if it’s better for RXi to be located somewhere else for some business reason, they’re gonna do it. They’re gonna move it."

Mello says Worcester has to find a way to stay competitive. If it does, life sciences could breathe economic life into this old industrial capital for generations to come.

This program aired on September 21, 2010.

Curt Nickisch Business & Technology Reporter
Curt Nickisch was formerly WBUR's business and technology reporter.



More from WBUR

Listen Live