Finneran Speaks, Listens
The Cambridge Chronicle
August 18, 2005
By Chris Helms

 

Word among Cambridge fund-raisers is that local biotechnology companies aren't doing their share to help community nonprofits.

 

It's a message Denise Jillson, director of fund raising for the Cambridge Family YMCA, wanted former Speaker of the House Tom Finneran to hear when he spoke to the city's Rotary Club last week.

 

A relaxed Finneran, sporting a canary-colored shirt with no tie, spoke to a crowd of more than 40 Rotarians at Ryles Jazz Club on Thursday. Finneran largely controlled the Beacon Hill agenda for eight years before resigning last September to run the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council, a trade group of 400 life-sciences companies, colleges and research facilities.

 

Jillson, who is president-elect of the Cambridge Rotary, buttonholed Finneran after his remarks, urging him to pressure local biotech firms to donate more money, time and talent to Cambridge's nonprofit sector.

 

They come here and enjoy the diversity of our community," Jillson said. "We're not going to be able to keep our diversity without their help."

 

The former speaker responded that biotech companies tend to focus their giving on science education. He said because companies are relying on venture capital, it's difficult for them to turn around and make charitable donations.

 

Jillson said that excuse doesn't wash for established biotech firms like Genzyme and Biogen Idec. She urged biotech companies to give not just money, but to put more of their high-ranking executives on the boards of local nonprofits.

 

Finneran, in his prepared remarks, said there is wisdom in voluntarily leaving public life before someone else brings down the curtain on you. He cited his childhood hero, baseball great Mickey Mantle, as playing two or three seasons past his prime.

 

"Some people stay on too long. That same sense applies to politics," said Finneran. The Dorchester Democrat represented the 12th Suffolk District for 26 years.

 

Finneran is under federal indictment for allegedly lying under oath about his role in redistricting. He pleaded innocent to federal perjury charges in June.

 

Finneran told Rotarians that biotechnology goes beyond health care. He cited applications in other fields, notably agriculture, saying biological engineering could improve crop yields tenfold for staples such as corn, wheat, barley and rice.

 

"Because of biotech, my prediction is hunger will become a thing of the past," Finneran said.

 

The top three biotech areas in the world are Boston/Cambridge, the San Francisco Bay area and San Diego, Finneran said, though parts of India, China and Ireland are making bids to compete.

 

He said a child born today in a Boston or Cambridge hospital has a 50/50 chance to reach the age of 100.

 

"We're living longer, better lives," the former marathoner said, citing his artificial left hip as evidence. He said since the surgery, he no longer has constant pain and has stopped gulping Advil. "We are blessed to live at such a time, at such an age."

 

While prescription drug consumers in the United States complain of high prices, Finneran said the root of the problem is the undermining of intellectual property rights. He said biotech companies invest so much up front that they need the security of a return on investment.

 

"The screwing that is going on is governments in Canada and Europe and other countries that go in and break the patents," said Finneran.

 

He said from the time scientists discover a potentially useful compound or molecule, the average time to market is 12 years. And along the way, most of them are found to have unacceptable side effects or other problems that make them unusable.

 

An audience member asked Finneran how he squared his Catholicism with his role promoting the state's biotech firms.

"For those who like labels, I was a pro-life legislator," said Finneran, who as speaker held up bills supporting stem-cell research. "The [Mass. Biotech Council] board knew where I was and they're not a single-issue organization."