Biotech Jet-Setter, Chris Rivera, Aims to Build Washington’s Life Sciences Cluster, Part 1

Xconomy Seattle — 

Washington state’s life sciences trade group has a new boss, Chris Rivera, who has made a career in the high-pressure world of sales and marketing of new biotech drugs. Rivera’s new challenge, starting this month, is to help strengthen this region’s broader industry cluster as president of the Washington Biotechnology & Biomedical Association.

Rivera, 47, has made a home with his family in the Seattle area since 1985, but he’s spent much of the past two decades on airplanes and in hotels. It’s given him a Rolodex full of industry insiders he’s met while working for a leading biotech company (Cambridge, MA-based Genzyme), a modest success story in the San Francisco Bay Area (Tercica), and a startup (CEO of San Francisco-based Hyperion Therapeutics). Five years ago, he even had a brief run in marketing at a Seattle-based company, Corixa, where he took some lumps, struggling to gin up sales of that company’s first approved product.

Since he’s done most of his work behind the scenes, Rivera is still very much in the getting-to-know-you phase with many in local industry circles. But he clearly has some unique thoughts on how to fix the traditional model of biotech, and the relative strengths of Washington state versus the top-tier hubs in the San Francisco Bay Area and Boston. To get a sense of how he’s thinking, here’s the first part of a 30-minute interview from his office in Seattle.

Xconomy: The conventional wisdom says biotech is in big trouble nationally, and locally as well. Why take a job like this?

Chris Rivera: I’ve been in biotech since 1989. It’s a phenomenal industry. It’s changed in that time frame. The model of taking something from the lab to the Street is probably, if not obsolete, close to it. It’s going to be hard for another Genentech or Genzyme to come up. It’s too costly. That being said, Big Pharma and Big Biotech, need to fill their pipelines with innovative products. That’s being developed in academia, and research institutes here, and with entrepreneurs here. The industry is consolidating, but there’s still great opportunity for new startups and innovation.

For me, from a personal standpoint, my daughter wants to go into biomedical research. I hope that if she chooses to go into industry, if she wants to stay in the Seattle market, that there will be a thriving industry here. I’ve been like the kid in “Miracle on 34th Street,” looking in the window at Macy’s since 1989, waiting to play with the cool toys. This is my opportunity now to make a difference in the marketplace here.

X: What skills do you bring to this job that are different from your predecessor, or other people in other parts of the country that do this kind of work?

CR: I’ve actually started and built divisions of companies. I know what it takes. I have a track record of taking products that are venturing into both novel marketplaces, as well as trying to enter established marketplaces. I’ve raised money, and know what it takes to build teams. I know what the challenges are, especially in the current economy. Hopefully, I can add value for entrepreneurs and executives and investors looking to start and build companies.

I’m looking at the WBBA like you would from a business perspective. I think we have to stay focused on a finite number of initiatives on which we can make a difference for the biotech and biomedical industry. I want to make sure I strive to make sure this isn’t just about biotech, but medical devices as well. We should become leaders in alternative energy and bio-ag. What’s going on in Eastern Washington is a great asset as well. We should look at our technology and innovation, and see where we have competitive advantages over other parts of the country and really emphasize those.

X: Maybe you have an unusual perspective, since you’ve worked in other major clusters, like Boston and San Francisco. How does this region stack up?

CR: One of the things that Boston and San Francisco have, that we don’t really, are really successful companies that spin out other companies. But if you think of Washington, you think of global health, you think of medical devices. I think there are great opportunities in alternative energy and biofuels and the ag side. A big part of where our industry is going, and healthcare is going in the U.S. is focused on cost…we have to be more focused on healthcare economics. What has been invested by the Gates Foundation, PATH, SBRI, IDRI, etc.—what they are learning about how to deliver healthcare in an economical manner across the globe in developing nations—we may want to take some of those ideas and learnings, and apply some of it to health economics in the U.S. Those are some of the areas we can become leaders, and compete in.

X: What has happened with the traditional model of biotech—the companies that have strived here to be the next Immunex, and haven’t done it?

CR: It comes back to cost. Risk, and the amount of money it takes to get a drug to the market. It’s very difficult to take something from the bench all the way to the market, because of the significant costs, regulatory costs, clinical development costs, and the risks involved. You’re seeing the investment world not getting the returns they were once getting. The IPO window was one of their main exits. That closed last year. Until that opens up, you’re going to have a tough time getting investors to put huge rounds of financing into companies.

X: So if the traditional venture model, or IPO driven model isn’t working, where will the money come from to support innovation for new drugs?

CR: The funds are still there, I think we have to figure out how we change the model so the investors are able to make a reasonable return in a reasonable time frame, and they can support innovation. Maybe companies become more of a pipeline for larger companies. There will be companies that can take things from start to finish, but there won’t be the sheer numbers of the past.

X: What are the most promising startup companies you see here locally?

CR: Seattle Genetics is probably the one that has the most diverse pipeline, most shots on goal, and is best positioned on the therapeutics side. On the device side, I’m not as familiar with that side, but we have a number of companies. Pathway Medical just launched a new device last year and things seem to be going well on the launch. Those are two of the companies with some of the most upside.

X: What are you doing now to get a feel for this job?

CR: A lot of time meeting the leaders in the life sciences industry. Obviously, I have an executive committee and a Board. They are CEOs, executive leaders of life sciences companies, and also people in industries that support our industry—law firms and accounting firms, etc. I’m trying to get to know them and get their perspective on where the market has been, and where we need to take it to be successful. I’m trying to meet with prospective investors, and investors in the area in life sciences. I’m trying to meet with my counterparts, leaders of other industry associations involved with high tech, like the Technology Alliance, and WTIA. Obviously, I’m also meeting with people in Olympia who will have influence over legislation that will affect our industry. Part of it is also trying to market, for lack of a better term, the WBBA to both member companies as well as potential member companies who might be interested in our state.