Bain executive emerges as key player in COVID-19 war

May 1, 2020 | Boston Globe, Council in the News

May 1, 2020
Boston Globe
By Jon Chesto, Globe Staff

Bridging the worlds: If the Massachusetts economy can reopen without our hospitals getting swamped by COVID-19 patients, we might have Steve Pagliuca to thank.

Pagliuca has emerged as a nexus of coronavirus-related research and recommendations: protocols for virus and antibody tests, the prospects for a vaccine, effective ways to track people who have been exposed, safe approaches for returning to the office.

He’s best known around town for his two day jobs: co-chairman of private equity firm Bain Capital, and co-owner of the Boston Celtics. But in the past month, he’s become something else: a ringleader for the business community’s efforts to gradually get the state’s economy moving again.

Pagliuca is well-suited for this daunting task, with an ability to move fluidly among the worlds of government, academia and business — not to mention a Rolodex thick with contacts in all three.

On behalf of the Massachusetts High Technology Council, Pagliuca assembled a task force of executives and health care leaders to craft a meticulous back-to-the-office strategy. He says he has committed nearly every free moment to this project in the past month. They finished a first draft last week, with help from colleagues at Bain and consulting giant McKinsey & Co., and continued to update it as new data became available. (The full report grew by more than 15 pages in the past week, based on its latest 71-page iteration.)

On Thursday, Pagliuca, McKinsey partner Megan Greenfield and Mass. High Tech chief executive Chris Anderson presented their findings to a new state advisory board created by Governor Charlie Baker to come up with the safest and most effective ways to reopen the state. Pagliuca also shared the report with Tom Steyer, the businessman and former presidential candidate co-chairing the effort to restart California’s economy.

Then Pagliuca and Greenfield offered a similar presentation today to the tech council’s members via a webinar. All the while, Pagliuca has kept in contact with Baker and his top advisors, such as Lieutenant Governor Karyn Polito, health secretary Marylou Sudders, and economic development secretary Mike Kennealy.

The tech council report may be the most meticulous roadmap for Massachusetts’ economic comeback that state officials have seen so far. But it will be just one of many that will inform the Baker administration as this working group hustles to draft a plan for a May 18 deadline, when the governor’s closure of nonessential workplaces is currently set to end.

Pagliuca plays down his part in all of this. He points to a group of scientists he is working with that hashed out a plan to produce COVID-19 treatments and vaccines as quickly as safely possible, while reopening society and reducing the chances of future outbreaks. He cites the contributions of nearly 100 executives and experts for the Mass. High Tech council report, as well as the hard work of the state’s hospitals and healthcare workers.

But Pagliuca’s role here could be pivotal, by bridging these worlds and drawing in policymakers.

Pagliuca’s career as a dealmaker put him in a strong position to tackle this challenge. He joined Bain Capital in 1989 from consultancy Bain & Co. At the private equity firm, Pagliuca specialized in medical and technology deals. The buyouts range from diagnostics businesses, to a defibrillator maker, to hospital network HCA Healthcare. More recently, his family investment office, run by his wife, Judy, has focused on biotech startups that can lead to meaningful societal change.

It is through his family’s investments that he came to know Tom Cahill of Newpath Partners, a local doctor-turned-investor who was instrumental in launching the Scientists To Stop COVID-19 coalition. Pagliuca advised that coalition and edited its recommendations. Anderson, meanwhile, was familiar with Pagliuca’s life sciences work and asked him to spearhead the tech council’s efforts to restart the economy.

Life, Pagliuca said, can’t really return to normal without a widely available vaccine. Unfortunately, that could be 18 months away. The economy, he said, can’t wait that long. He had hoped that widespread, frequent testing could help buy us some time, by keeping people with the virus quarantined.

However, the analysis quickly showed that universal testing would take months to ramp up. To start, he recommends that the state test at least 100,000 people a week. Meanwhile, he said, employers need to adopt measures to limit the spread of the virus: requiring masks at the office, making temperature and symptom checks at the door, ensuring at least six feet between workers, avoiding large group meetings.

Pagliuca is not one to back away from a challenge. He took over the chairmanship of Boston’s Olympics bid in 2015, albeit too late to save that effort. But there were lessons to be learned from that experience.

Tackling a complex problem, Pagliuca said, requires business, academia and government to work collectively in an open and transparent way. These often disparate communities will need to join forces, he said, to beat this thing.

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