By Shirley Leung
DECEMBER 03, 2014
GLOUCESTER — There has been a lot of crying over the future of this centuries-old port and its fishermen. Are there enough cod for another generation, or should tourism be the new life line? Mayor Carolyn Kirk and serial entrepreneur Greg Verdine are casting about for yet another option: biotechnology hub.
It sounds like a pipe dream in a petri dish until you realize that Verdine, a Harvard professor and partner at Third Rock Ventures, is someone who could make this happen. Verdine came close a decade ago when he hatched the idea for a new cancer drug here at his home on Eastern Point. He named the startup Gloucester Pharmaceuticals but soon realized this fishing town didn’t have the infrastructure to support a biotech. He couldn’t get permits to open a research and development center and there wasn’t even a business hotel — one with Wi-Fi and conference rooms — to put up prospective investors.
“Venture capitalists,” said Verdine, “aren’t going to stay at ‘whatever-it-is-by-the-sea.’’’
So he had to grow Gloucester Pharmaceuticals elsewhere, and in 2009, its drug to treat two forms of leukemia won approval from the Food and Drug Administration. With a hot discovery blessed by the FDA, Gloucester was scooped up for more than $600 million by biopharmaceutical giant Celgene.
“Not a single dollar was spent in Gloucester,” said Verdine. “To me, that was a tragedy.”
You can’t help but feel he’s trying to make it up to the city he loves dearly — his Twitter handle is @glostaman — with his push to diversify Gloucester’s economy. Roughly a third of the jobs are tied to fishing and marine-related sectors. Verdine’s plan involves building a sustainable fishing industry as well as luring biotech jobs to the area with a skilled labor force and views of the waterfront.
Much of what Verdine is able to do in Gloucester these days has been made possible by New Balance chairman Jim Davis, who also has a house here. Davis is an investor in a growing collection of projects that are being developed by local businesswoman Sheree Zizik. Among them are the Beauport Hotel, a 96-room property that broke ground earlier this month and will finally allow Gloucester to accommodate business travelers, and Scienceport, a waterfront building where Verdine plans to house a marine science institute and a biotech.
Amid the long-simmering controversy over how to count the cod stock, Verdine believes scientists should sequence the DNA of fish. He launched a nonprofit, the Gloucester Marine Genomics Institute, to do that and believes that scientists should study the fish’s microbiome — or what the rest of us would call poop. The reasoning: It’s hard to count fish because they’re on the move; instead count what they leave behind.
A more accurate count could go a long way toward figuring out how to replenish the cod population, which the federal government is so concerned about that it recently imposed sharp restrictions on catches in the Gulf of Maine. Verdine is also exploring the idea of Gloucester raising its own fish. Over the summer, he and Kirk visited fish farms in Japan. The types of species that could thrive in Gloucester Harbor will depend on the water temperature, and a team from Japan will come in the spring to help sort that out.
Talk to Kirk and her eyes widen with the possibility of hatcheries for sea bass, black cod, and flounder.
“It’s opening another channel to bring fish across the docks in Gloucester,” said Kirk, who recently gave me a tour of her city after lunch at the popular seafood restaurant The Causeway.
Verdine hopes the Scienceport will be done in 2016. It will feature a laboratory, innovation space, and a 250-seat auditorium open to the public. He is also starting a Gloucester Life Science Academy, which will give local high school graduates year-long apprenticeships at Boston-area companies.
Over his career, Verdine has launched 10 companies, including four that have gone public. He currently is chief executive of Warp Drive Bio, a Cambridge life sciences company that derives drugs from the genomes of microorganisms.
“What I am most proud of is that I have put a lot of people to work,” he said.
Now he’s trying to create some of those jobs in Gloucester. It would be quite a catch.
Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist.