Washington Biotechies Showing Off the Green (Trees) at BIO Conference

Xconomy Seattle — 

Washington state doesn’t do much Texas-style boasting, and the state’s economic development promoters have never tossed around big bucks to crow about the biotechnology cluster here. Case in point: how many of you know that the world’s top-selling biotechnology drug, and fifth-biggest pharmaceutical product in 2007 (Amgen and Wyeth’s Enbrel) was developed in Seattle?

As more than 20,000 people gather in San Diego for the Biotechnology Industry Organization’s annual four-day extravaganza, which starts today, Washington is sticking with the modest approach. Yet this time it is doing a little more to stand out from the crowd of states and countries that seemingly spend (and waste) millions of dollars trying to convince people they will become the next Boston or San Francisco.

After at least three years without offering any evidence Seattle exists on the busy trade show floor, biotech boosters from around the state have pooled $40,000 for a booth this year, said Susan St. Germain, senior business development manager for the state’s Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development. The booth (#401) will tout the Northwest’s quality of life, featuring mini Evergreen trees, mountain bikes, and landscape photos like one of Mt. Baker shot from the San Juan Islands, said Jack Faris, the president of the Washington Biotechnology and Biomedical Association.

“We want the booth itself to be distinctive and more attractive than a lot of stuff you see that tends to be high-tech and plastic,” Faris says. “We want to play up the fact that this is a wonderful place to live, and build a career and grow a company.”

There’s a reason the state wants to focus on that message. Northwest biotech companies often complain it’s hard to recruit talented scientists to the far upper left corner of the U.S., because candidates believe that if their company fails, or even succeeds and gets acquired, they could lose their job and not be able to find another one in town. Recruits to Boston know if their company goes belly-up, they can probably score another comparable gig in the same area code.

To counter the perception of slim pickings in the Northwest, Washington’s booth will be staffed by human-resources reps from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, discussing jobs to advance health in the developing world. Gilead Sciences, the world’s largest maker of AIDS drugs, will also be there, talking about opportunities as it diversifies into lung diseases at its Seattle research center.

Now if the biotech boosters could just clone another Genentech or Biogen Idec for the Northwest, they’d have a sure-fire way of changing perceptions about Seattle.