Can Made-to-Order Organs Revive This Former Mill Town?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because bioengineering could save lives and money.
By Nick Fouriezos
Ever since the early 19th century, when Derryfield renamed itself Manchester after the English manufacturing capital of the world, the industrial aims of this New Hampshire city have been clear. Those ambitions were pressed by its business class, from Samuel Blodget, a lumber tycoon who built a canal to harness the power of nearby waterfalls, to Francis Cabot Lowell, who covertly visited a British textile factory and brought its secrets back to New England, relying only on his memory.
By the 1900s, the largest textile plant in the world was in the American Manchester. At its height, the Amoskeag Manufacturing Co. produced 470 miles of fabric per day and employed 17,000 workers. But after World War I, labor disputes and a drop in demand sped its downfall. In 1935, on Christmas Eve, the company closed its doors; by the ’50s, the community had to purchase its historic Millyard to keep it from being torn apart and sold to the highest bidder.
The world of engineering is going to do for organs what the semiconductor industry did for Silicon Valley.
Dean Kamen, founder, DEKA Research and Development Corp.
That history sets the stage for modern Manchester, a city of 110,000 that’s reshaping itself around its past but with a twist. Rather than textiles, people here are establishing a global manufacturing capital for regenerative organs and tissues. Their venture centers around the Advanced Regenerative Manufacturing Institute, a $300 million project that opened its doors in July. With a highly educated workforce and proximity to the Boston health-tech market, as well as Dartmouth College and the manufacturing-minded University of New Hampshire, the region seems poised to pounce. And these ambitions are buoyed by the state’s emerging life-science sector, which is expected to grow 8 percent by 2020, 2 points above national growth projections.
Dean Kamen, the multimillionaire inventor of the Segway and the first wearable insulin pump, AutoSyringe, doesn’t mince words when describing the emerging industry’s potential: “This is not some slow, slightly influential possibility.” As in Manchester’s early days, business is leading the charge: Kamen has championed the creation of ARMI, helping pull together $214 million in donations to pair with federal funding from the Department of Defense. Meanwhile, more than 80 companies, universities and organizations have signed up to partner on the large-scale manufacturing of bioengineered tissues that Kamen says could become “the biggest boon in medicine since antibiotics.”
It’s another example of unlikely states and cities hoping to corner a niche industry the way South Dakota has become a hub for biomedicine, or the San Francisco Bay Area dominates tech: “The world of engineering is going to do for organs what the semiconductor industry did for Silicon Valley,” says Kamen, who predicts that bioengineered tissues could cut health care costs drastically by replacing treatments with cures. If he’s right, New Hampshire is well-positioned to profit the most from that evolution.
It would be a surprising turn of events for Manchester and the “Live Free or Die” state, which was identified as an epicenter for the opioid epidemic during last year’s presidential election. “Manchester is an urban city in a sea of rural communities,” says Mike Skelton, president of the Manchester Chamber of Commerce, and thus carries some crime-and-drugs stigma, he admits. “It’s not to say we don’t have those challenges — we do — but we might unfairly be labeled as a place that’s struggling,” Skelton adds. “We have some work to do to get that message out and rebrand Manchester.” That criticism doesn’t just come from outsiders. “Culturally, the Northeast, we have a healthy amount of skepticism,” Skelton says. “If there is one challenge we are battling internally … it’s the perception of what we are, and what we can be.”
For a bioengineering center to emerge, young talent will have to want to live here. And as Kamen puts it, the workforce needs to be educated and flexible — software engineers next to industrial ones, programmers and designers working alongside scientists, not behind them. Other states, such as New York, North Carolina and Georgia, bid on the DOD’s $80 million, five-year contract — and their bids included hundreds of millions of local dollars to sweeten the deal. But Kamen made the pitch that the city’s unique manufacturing expertise could meet the department’s needs for skin tissue and organs to treat injured soldiers, sailors and marines. “Most industries grow up around pockets of expertise,” Kamen says. History becomes destiny. But cities can also chart a new path, and, if successful, create “a self-fulling prophecy,” as he puts it, becoming known for the market they hope to own.
The Millyard is playing a key role in Manchester’s rebound. Its 3 million square feet of brick buildings have 95 percent occupancy — a mix of tech firms, multiuse developers and a UNH campus. Last November, Oracle paid more than $600 million for another tenant, New Hampshire–based cloud-computing startup Dyn. It grew “from a couple dozen employees to 500,” Skelton notes, which helped convince other businesses that they could thrive at the Millyard: “It was born of the idea that this is a place of action, of innovation, where all the talent is, and this is where we can go and share resources.” For Manchester to become a hub of enterprise, the old will have to become new again — and it very well could be the Millyard that connects the city’s bright future to its ambitious past.