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Northeastern University wins competitive federal grant to help broaden job opportunities in biotech across New England

The university was selected among a competitive pool of 529 applicants to receive a federal grant as part of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Regional Challenge—a program designed to boost pandemic recovery and rebuild communities across the country. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

Northeastern University is poised to change the biotechnology and manufacturing landscape of the Northeast, with support from the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

The university was selected among a competitive pool of 529 applicants to receive a federal grant as part of President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better Regional Challenge—a program designed to boost pandemic recovery and rebuild communities across the country.

The $500,000 award will be used to lay the foundation for a proposal to expand biomanufacturing across Massachusetts, Maine, and Rhode Island, said Jared Auclair, associate dean of professional program and graduate affairs in the College of Science at Northeastern.

Jared Auclair, an associate teaching professor of biotechnology at Northeastern’s Life Science Testing Center at the Innovation Campus in Burlington, Massachusetts. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

“The concept is to take Cambridge as the hub of biotech research and push it out west, north, and south, to really support biomanufacturing workforce development” across the region, Auclair, the project’s principal investigator, said.

Northeastern is one of 60 applicants selected by officials from the federal Economic Development Administration to receive the first round of funding. The remaining applicants, including Northeastern, have until March to build out their proposals and compete for the final round of funding. The administration will winnow down the applicants by at least half, and 20-30 proposals will be awarded between $75 and $100 million to see their projects to fruition.

Using its Roux Institute in Portland, Maine, and the Biopharmaceutical Analysis Training Lab in Burlington, Massachusetts, as launching pads, Northeastern’s proposal would create a “hub-and-spoke” model for ramping up domestic biotechnological manufacturing and training people to work in those jobs, said Alicia Sasser Modestino, associate professor of public policy and urban affairs and economics.

Alicia Sasser Modestino is an associate professor of public policy and urban affairs, and economics, as well as the associate director of the Dukakis Center for Urban and Regional Policy. Photo by Ruby Wallau/Northeastern University

Modestino, who helped shape Northeastern’s proposal, said that there’s enormous growth potential for jobs in the biotechnology sector, but a dearth of training opportunities for would-be biotech employees. A report from the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council predicts that the industry will add 40,000 new jobs just in the Bay State by 2024—but so far, “there’s no pipeline of workers to even meet that demand,” Modestino says. Northeastern’s plan to expand manufacturing and training capacity of the region would fix that.

“The Build Back Better Regional Challenge aims to supercharge local economies and increase American competitiveness around the globe,” Gina M. Raimondo, U.S. secretary of commerce, said in a news release. “The outpouring of interest in this program shows the demand for the Build Back Better agenda and the desire to not only create good-paying jobs, but also strengthen our country’s economic resiliency for years down the road.”

The project is two-fold. The first part will focus on defining and laying out career pathways to the biotech industry, and the second part will focus on prototyping new technologies in the biomanufacturing space, Auclair said.

As part of that effort, Northeastern will lead a coalition of stakeholders across Maine, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island to support “new and existing” biomanufacturing infrastructure, which will include outreach to communities cut off from economic opportunity to promote job growth in the biotech industry. That means creating an on-ramp into biotech for individuals who don’t have a four-year college degree, Auclair said.

Partners in the effort include Worcester Polytechnic Institute, the Gloucester Marine Genomics Institute, Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, and FocusMaine, among others, Auclair said.

“The plan now is to convene the coalition to really brainstorm and think about innovative ways to make this project the most impactful and successful we can make it,” Auclair says.

For media inquiries, please contact media@northeastern.edu.

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