BANGOR, Maine — A top official for Jackson Laboratory was in Bangor on Tuesday to talk about the organization’s economic impact and some of its hopes for the future — including a possible expansion into China.
As Charles Hewitt, the lab’s executive vice president and chief operating officer, sees it, expanding to the world’s most populous country could be a logical next move for the Bar Harbor-based biomedical research facility also known for the more than 7,500 types of mice it breeds for research purposes.
Last year, Jackson Laboratory contributed $380 million to Maine’s economy, according to an analysis conducted by Maine economist Chuck Lawton of Planning Decisions. Its payroll for 2013 amounted to $93 million, Hewitt said, citing the analysis.
“It’s a complex rationale but China, it is amazing,” Hewitt said in response to an audience question during an informational meeting hosted by the Action Committee of 50.
“It’s growing at a pace that you can’t begin to imagine,” Hewett said of the world’s most populous country. “They have brought 300 million people — by the way, roughly the population of the United States — out of poverty and into the middle class in the last decade.”
“They’re spending money on research. When you ask the real value of what our government spends on biomedical research, that’s declined every year for the last seven years.” Meanwhile, in China, research funding is going up 15 to 20 percent a year, he said.
“Chinese spending on biomedical research is about to cross the U.S.’s spending. I’m a nonprofit guy but I’m kind of a businessman, too, and you can see why you’d want to be part of that,” he said.
“But more than that, [Jackson Laboratory] mice today are the world standard. We have competitors. We have three major competitors in this country. We have international competitors. But no one will argue that JAX has the greatest diversity, the most genetically stable patented process by the way, the healthiest, the best characterized, the most published mice of anyone in the world,” he said.
“If China keeps on growing and we don’t raise and sell our mice soon, somebody else is going take advantage of our ability,” Hewett said.
“It’s risky. We haven’t figured out how to do it yet. I made it sound great but there’s a lot of risk associated with that and we’re trying to figure out how to best navigate the shoals,” he said.
Hewitt also made his case for supporting Question 4 on the Nov. 4 statewide referendum election ballot.
If approved, the referendum would provide $10 million in bond funds that would be awarded through a competitive process and matched by $11 million in private and other dollars “to build a research center and discover genetic solutions for cancer and the diseases of aging, to promote job growth and private sector investment in this State, to attract and retain young professionals and make the State a global leader in genomic medicine.”
A tall order, surely, but Hewitt said he believes Jackson Laboratory is up to the task.
“We want to build that center in Bar Harbor,” he said, noting that developing the new center would enable Jackson Lab to parlay its 83 years of experience in human and mouse genetics and genomics research into the search for cures for cancer, glaucoma, diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, multiple sclerosis and other medical conditions.