I got a chance to travel to the United States thanks to the Foreign Press Centre to peep into the policies, ecosystems and other intangibles that have led to the U.S. being one of the leaders in artificial intelligence.
I approached this experience with an open mind, hoping to learn how Zimbabwe could implement similar strategies.
From the start, I realised that my fears were true: copying and pasting an ecosystem is almost impossible. It occurs naturally over time and cannot be forced.
The best option is to create a supportive business environment, although there is more that can be done.
Boston (and Cambridge Massachusets) are known as the biotech capital of the US, or even of the world by some. It has a significant presence and influence in the biotechnology and life sciences industry and is home to numerous prestigious universities, research institutions, pharmaceutical companies, and biotech startups.
So, as we touched down in Massachusets I was keen to understand why that was.
We visited several institutions and met interesting individuals. At a LabCentral lab, we found some answers to my questions.
We had a chance to speak to LabCentral founder and President Johannes Fruehauf. (Fun fact – he did his PhD work in Bulawayo decades ago and had pleasant memories of his stay in Zimbabwe.)
LabCentral is a shared laboratory and office space, to put it simply. It provides fully equipped laboratory space, co-working spaces, and various resources to biotech startups.
This means LabCentral is what we would consider a startup incubator. But just that they exclusively focus on biotech startups.
Benefits for startups
- Access to lab facilities that cost millions of dollars. Instead of utilising all raised funds on equipment, startups can invest in talent and other things whilst they utilise LabCentral equipment.
- Collaboration with other scientists and entrepreneurs in biotech. This has led to some exciting breakthroughs.
- Location – LabCentral is in Boston, the biotech capital and startups are stone’s throws from Havard, MIT and large pharmaceutical and biotech firms.
- Support services – scientists can focus on the science and leave the administration and other operational stuff to LabCentral. They also get mentorship and networking opportunities.
- Funding and partnerships – LabCentral has partnerships with academic institutions, industry organisations, and venture capital firms. Startups can access funding opportunities and build relationships with potential collaborators and investors through these connections. LabCentral startups have raised billions over the years. 2022 highlights include one startup being acquired for $3.3 billion by GSK.
This is a who’s who list of LabCentral sponsors which includes Pfizer, Norvatis, Johnson & Johnson, Eli Lilly, Bayer AG … They all want to keep tabs on the startups at LabCentral and are always actively looking to scoop up any promising research.
This success is due to a complex and delicate ecosystem. If even one organism is removed, or if the organisms are not in the right order, the entire ecosystem could fail.
World-class academic institutions – Havard, MIT, Boston University, Tufts and more attract top-tier talent from across the world.
Innovation and research – the academic institutions are known for their extensive research which attracts even more skilled researchers and leads to a stream of innovative ideas. This in turn leads to intellectual property (IP) which is the basis for startups.
Access to capital – the research and resultant IP which can be worth billions attracts investors. Boston has a robust network of venture capitalists, angel investors and even philanthropic organisations competing to invest in startups.
Collaboration – there is a culture of collaboration in Boston with startups, hospitals, researchers, pharmaceutical companies often sharing knowledge, leading to quicker translation of research into clinical applications.
World-class hospitals and health centres – These institutions provide access to patient populations, clinical trials, and medical expertise, facilitating the development of new therapies.
Supportive government policies – It is one thing to say a country/state/city is open for business, it’s quite another to come up with policies that actually support business. LabCentral was partly funded by a public agency to the tune of $5 million. That’s a government putting its money where its mouth is.
The LabCentral founder told us about how part of the motivations of the local government were to attract startups and scientists to Boston with the understanding that that would create jobs. Hence why they saw value in investing in a biotech startup accelerator like LabCentral.
There is more to the Boston ecosystem but this should be enough to see just how it’s all intertwined.
The Zimbabwean lens
Just looking at this, is it any wonder that a startup in Harare would find it hard to compete with one in Boston? Even a startup accelerator in the country would struggle to recreate the success of LabCentral.
It’s not hopeless to try but we should probably taper our expectations on how far and how fast we will have meaningful success.
We have seen some successful, by different standards of course, accelerators and startups in Zimbabwe but it feels like they succeeded in spite of the environment not because of it like Boston biotech startups.
I have met many entrepreneurial Zimbabweans and I believe they would thrive if they had an ecosystem like Boston’s to play in. It’s up to the new government to steer us towards that reality.
It took years
Many cities across the world and even some in the United States have tried to recreate the magic of Silicon Valley and Boston but have not been successful. All I have gathered from all the people I asked on why that is is that it took years, luck, planning and a lot of intangibles to make it happen.
It appears we will have to be patient (and lucky) to have our own version of this.