Commentary: Why Boston’s life sciences sector should fuel a new climatetech niche

Feb 27, 2024

Gov. Maura Healey was right when she called Massachusetts “the global epicenter” of life sciences last spring. The sector had been booming for years. And although it has seen layoffs recently, “Most industry watchers have cautious optimism for 2024,” the Business Journal reported recently.

Being a leader in the space offers tremendous advantages and economic opportunities to our region. But it also comes with a responsibility. In delivering life-saving solutions, the life sciences industry takes an environmental toll — one far worse than many people realize.

“For most industrialized nations, healthcare systems account for nearly 10 percent of national greenhouse-gas emissions, a higher proportion than either the aviation or shipping industries,” McKinsey reports. And within healthcare, life sciences companies are especially damaging, with emissions two to three times higher than “healthcare delivery organizations” such as hospitals and medical centers, the report says.

The global life sciences industry alone is expected to double in size by 2030. Its carbon footprint could easily double with it, unless major action is taken right away. As the industry’s “epicenter,” the Boston metro area should lead the way in bringing sustainability to life sciences.

Fortunately, this spells economic opportunity, including for small businesses. Rather than trying to make all the necessary changes in-house, biotech and biopharma giants have good reason to look for startups with whom they can contract to help them transform their operations and reduce emissions.

Having co-founded Greentown Labs here in Boston more than a decade ago and watched it grow into the largest climatetech incubator in North America, I’ve seen how powerful partnerships between large companies and climate-focused startups can be. In fact, corporations are some of the most important and impactful clients for climatetech startups. In the coming years, I expect more niche climatetech startups to take root, including those specifically focused on solutions for life sciences.

I joined this space last year, having been hired as CEO of GreenLabs Recycling, which collects and recycles certain plastics from laboratories (including pipette tip boxes and media bottles) that have mostly been sent to landfills, incinerated, or sent across the country for recycling, adding to emissions from shipping. Our entire recycling system is local, and includes using the plastic to manufacture a lab product. Another local example is MacroCycle Technologies, which turns media bottles into virgin-grade mPET resins.

There are infinite possibilities for ways to make a dent in the life sciences sector’s environmental impact. In fact, McKinsey estimates that about 60% of emissions for pharma companies “can be abated at near-zero cost by 2040.”

Developing climatetech solutions for life sciences can be especially challenging. For example, the unique dangers and potential toxicity of chemicals used in labs require any company dealing with these materials to take all sorts of special precautions. There are also numerous important regulations involving any business that serves this sector. So these startups have good reason to snatch up talent with experience working for life sciences companies.

As leaders work to build the future of Boston’s life sciences sector, they should keep this kind of innovation front of mind. The more the region fuels climatetech for “big pharma,” the stronger our ecosystem will be — both financially and environmentally.

Sam White is CEO of GreenLabs Recycling in Concord.