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Finding a Solution To Our Biotech Malaise Together


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the increase in New Molecular Entities (NME) over the last 50 years can be attributed to the increased number of companies in the arena, not to some sort of paradigm shift due to biotechnology. An NME now costs almost 100,000 times what it did in the 50s. The rate of cost increases before 1970 is the same as after 1970. The Biotech Revolution had no effect on the increasing cost of NMEs.

Hard to get excited about an industry that really does not have enough jobs and which has failed to deliver on its promise of a new paradigm in drug development.

Perhaps Luke is right to talk about some of the discouraging aspects of biotech in Seattle.

I wish I had a silver bullet to solve this problem and to make Seattle a biotech hub like nothing we have seen before. I don’t.

However, I do know that the old saw “necessity is the mother of invention” rings true. I lived in Houston during the oil bust. More businesses were started in Houston the years following than anywhere else in the nation. In a few years, Houston had a more diversified, and exciting, economy.

Anyone living in Seattle during the 70s saw the same thing happen with the Boeing bust.

At its darkest time is when creativity and innovation come to the forefront. They have to.

Seattle has some unique pieces of the puzzle that, along with the creative talent we have, could perhaps find a new approach.

We do have a dynamo of research here. The University of Washington is always in the top 5 for NIH grants in the country. The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center is usually in the top 25. No other city in the country can say they have that.

But in addition to these two institutions, we have a solid core of other research labs that rival what is found anywhere else. The Infectious Disease Research Institute (IDRI), Seattle Biomedical Research Institute, Institute for Systems Biology (ISB) are just a few of the powerhouses we have, now all with a single organization – the Washington Global Health Alliance (WGHA) – to represent them.

Yet the WGHA also includes a few more entities that cannot be found anywhere else in the world – PATH and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. These NGOs provide some of the strongest support not only for research but for translational approaches to create real therapies.

In combination with a strong product development sector – represented by the WBBA and its members – we have all the pieces to find innovative new solutions for the problems bedeviling the industry. And, with a rich history of companies like Boeing, Starbucks, Nordstrom and Microsoft, we know how to create world-changing organizations.

We not only discover things, Seattle knows how to use them to have a worldwide impact.

No other place in the world could get all these groups together – world leaders in non-profit research, for-profit development, grant-makers, grantees, production, clinicians and even sales together in one room and pay no more than the cost for the South Lake Union Streetcar.

(As an aside, with the recent addition of ISB, the Lake Union area is an incredible hub for bioscience. Seattle Biomed, PATH, ISB, Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, the Hutch and Children’s are all on the streetcar line. UW, the Gates Foundation, the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, and many others are a short walk away. And who knows what effect having Amazon right there will have. If I were a VC, I’d really be thinking about having my offices in the SLU area.)

At the moment, too many of these groups work in their own isolated silos. Few people from the non-profit side interact with those from the for-profit. Postdocs have few opportunities to talk with VCs face to face. Principal investigators on grants seldom have informal talks with patent attorneys.

Destroying these silos between these organizations and leveraging the strong collaborative environment found in the Seattle culture could have an explosive effect on innovation. Perhaps enough innovation to find a way around our current problems in the industry.

There is nothing like getting a group of innovative people together with their backs up against the wall to find creative and novel solutions.

We have already begun to obliterate those silos. Global Health Nexus is an organization that is bringing together these groups in order to provide the overall infrastructure and support to make Seattle a global health powerhouse.

Washington Global Health Alliance is bringing together high level people from their organizations to facilitate biomedicine in Washington State. WBBA’s Innovation NW has transmuted into a strong tent pole event for collaboration.

I’ve been collaborating with the WGHA to host the Global Health Dialogues over the last 18 months. These have provided a simple but powerful venue for a wide range of researchers in the area to connect with one another. While focused on the non-profit researcher, I found a real hunger for scientists to connect with a larger audience.

Using that experience, I’m proposing something that can bring together not only the researchers from all these institutions in an informal environment. I also want to include those who are involved in translating research, along with those who support the whole enterprise.

BioScience on the Brink is the result – a quarterly get-together for people in all the silos I’ve discussed.

Let’s take the people who might be discouraged by the current state of the industry and allow them to find new approaches for success.

The first organizational meeting will be at the EastLake Bar & Grill on May 24. Tickets are $5. Chris Fox from IDRI will provide a short presentation. There will be food and drink. And we will discuss just how we want to proceed to make Seattle the powerhouse it can be.

With a deck on Lake Union it should be a great location for getting started. I have no doubt that something interesting and important will be born.

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5 responses to “Finding a Solution To Our Biotech Malaise Together”

  1. Dan Rizzuto, PhD says:

    Nice! This is a sorely needed event. Looking forward to it.

  2. Randy Hall says:

    Richard, Thanks so much for organizing this event, I most thoroughly enjoyed it! Your presentation was thought provoking, and it nicely articulated the scenario in which the Pacific Northwest becomes a true hub of biotechnology and discovery.

    It was great to include Chris Fox’s presentation on adjuvants, I enjoy hearing someone who is passionate about their work. Thank you Chris.

    I would like to sign up for information on future “Spreading Science” events, and I look forward to the next meeting. Will you have someplace to sign up, or will I see the next meeting announced on Xconomy?

  3. Randy, I am glad you enjoyed it. Chris’ presentation was so wonderful that the bartender we had was captivated. The feedback I got was amazing and we will definitely have future events. I think that it was very auspicious that we had a glorious sunny evening to match the incredible energy of the meeting.

    We wanted to continue the conversations and start building an ongoing community. To begin the process, I have created a mailing list called BioScience on the Brink. This will be where we will discuss all the pieces of the Seattle bioscience puzzle, including announcements of future events. Feel free to sign up.