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Washington’s Tobacco Cash Must Be “Catalyst” For Health Innovation, Says Lee Huntsman

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LH: The trustees and staff had conversations all around the state about how to go about its mission. The trustees are very engaged in the approach. We understand there is some criticism, but the heart of that is the notion that only laser-like focus will do, and fundamentally, we have chosen to ask people to give us your very best ideas. Convince us why your ideas have a high probability of health and economic benefit. Convince us that support from the LSDF is important to pursue it. Convince us that your idea is sustainable on its own. That’s the strategy we’ve chosen. We’re not only interested in Disease X or Technology Y. We’ve chosen an approach that says we’re here to launch the most compelling ideas. We have a very rigorous process, so your idea better be bloody compelling.

X: You talked earlier about the metrics for success. What are the metrics you’re using for five years from now?

LH: When we make an award, our awards are different than NIH or somebody else. These awards are milestone-based, and we get semi-annual progress reports. Both written and oral. We’re tracking them. Our awardees are expected to not only design their progress reports, but give us progress reports for five years after the award is given. That’s where metrics come in. We want to know how the project is proceeding, but we have metrics to gauge impact. We ask a lot of questions like how many people did you hire? Have they developed other new partnerships from it? Have they gone after other grants? Is there technology transfer underway? How’s that going? We expect them to be able to report that across our whole portfolio.

X: Is it realistic to count on job growth coming from these kinds of grants?

LH: We’re in the leverage business. We expect to leverage continued and expanded activity in research, health, and commercialization. So yeah, job growth is a reasonable expectation. But the Bio21 task force struggled with how to estimate this. We’re going to try to count money and partnerships as well as jobs.

X: Are people in the legislature expecting to see results in terms of jobs, companies, economic impact on the state now, or is the legislature patient with the time it takes to develop new products?

LH: You have to ask them, but so far, they are acting like they are sufficiently patient. They understand this is an investment strategy. Some of the returns will come quickly, and others will take a longer period of time.

X: What happens to this program if Gov. Gregoire is no longer the governor as of November?

LH: Mr. Rossi made an appearance at the WBBA board retreat. Dino said some good things about life sciences. He was asked specifically by a WBBA board member who said the Life Sciences Discovery Fund is very important to the WBBA community, and how does he regard it? He said good things about it, and saw no reason to change it.

X: Have you had a one-on-one conversation with him about it?

LH: No, I haven’t.

X: What about the legislature? What kind of feedback are you getting from them?

LH: I’ve been there three times, three years in a row, to present to the House Committee on Technology, Energy, and Communications. I was just there last Friday. I gave a presentation and got what I thought was a good response. It’s a progress report, so we’re not in front of the legislature asking for decisions. The good news is that we’ve got three sets of awards launched, and within months of making a decision on a fourth. But it’s still early. Even the first awards we made are less than a year old. So we have exactly one set of semi-annual progress reports in so far. We’re now up to 17 awards, and we’ll make another handful in December. So we were able to remind them about our mission and how we go about it, and focus on examples of the awards and what they are trying to accomplish.

X: How long do you want to keep doing this? At what point do you say you’ve accomplished what you want to do here?

LH: I’m not focused on that question now. I am quite proud of what we’ve accomplished here, though.

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