Gov. Gregoire Urges Biotechies to “Stay Focused”; UW Makes its Biotech Business Case, And A Host of Startups Debut

Xconomy Seattle — 

The last time Gov. Chris Gregoire spoke at the Washington Biotechnology and Biomedical Association’s annual meeting, she had to share the stage with Republican challenger Dino Rossi during the election campaign of 2004. This morning, she had the podium to herself, and Gregoire used it tout the region’s expertise in biotech and its potential to grow even during what she called a “dramatic downturn” in the national economy.

“I fundamentally want and believe we can be the epicenter of life sciences and global health,” Gregoire said this morning, to a room of about 700 people attending the WBBA’s annual meeting at the Seattle Sheraton. “It’s within our reach if we stay focused.”

She pointed to a list of accomplishments on her watch. Work on a new vaccine for malaria, as well as new drugs and vaccines for tuberculosis, two of the leading killers in the world, has sprouted here. The state has doubled its exports in the past four years and is the only state in the country with a trade surplus with China, Gregoire said. Then she ticked off a list of progress in cleantech: The state is now the No. 5 producer of wind power in the country, there’s a growing solar panel production plant in Moses Lake, WA, while Hoquiam has the nation’s largest biodiesel refinery (although she left out its financial struggles, which Greg has described.)

There was no mention of some of the more discouraging developments in the region over this term, like the dismantling of Icos and Merck’s recent shutdown of its local Rosetta Inpharmatics unit. That sort of thing, of course, is beyond the power of the Governor anyway, and she reminded this friendly audience that she went to bat for them. Gregoire led the charge for the 10-year, $350 million Life Sciences Discovery Fund passed by the legislature back in 2005. It only passed the state Senate by one vote, she said, which sounded to me like she was implying its might be in jeopardy if her opponent wins the Governor’s mansion next week.

Besides Gregoire’s talk, there was a fascinating big-picture view of the University of Washington from president Mark Emmert. A few of the highlights:

—Emmert focused his talk on what he called “managing paradox.” At the UW, he needs to balance the need to do cutting-edge basic research with the competing demand of getting research translated into real-world products. The UW needs to compete on an international stage, but have a local impact by churning out inventions and a talented workforce. It must be open and collaborative, while at the same time being “competitive and proprietary” to win in the marketplace, Emmert says. And of course, it needs to excel at academics and on the football field. (Sorry, Ty Willingham.)

Against that backdrop, Emmert made it clear that he needs to create an environment in which UW researchers can collaborate with the biotech community. He acknowledged some of the industry’s previous complaints about technology transfer, but said they are just that—in the past. UW’s technology transfer operation recorded 350 invention disclosures from researchers, signed 200 licensing deals, and helped form 10 startups in fiscal 2008, Emmert says. And it hired Linden Rhoads, a serial entrepreneur, to run the office with a new kind of mentality.

“We brought in an innovative entrepreneur because we thought it was easier to teach an entrepreneur the ways of the university than it would be to teach someone from the university the ways of business,” Emmert said. “This is an experiment. We’ll learn together. If anyone can pull it off, it’s Linden.”

One biotechie I spoke with after the meeting was impressed by Emmert’s talk. “I hadn’t heard him speak before. The guy has a brain,” said this person.

One other item in the program that struck me as interesting, yet didn’t get a lot of attention, was the list of a dozen new WBBA members, which president Jack Faris called the “Class of 2008.” … Next Page »

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