Raising the Bar for Neuroscience in the Northwest


Xconomy Seattle — 

From Alzheimer’s to depression, brain diseases are an extremely challenging area for therapeutic discovery and development. The field of neuroscience has an inadequate understanding of how the brain works and why things go wrong to cause diseases. The field is very exciting, but still relatively young, and all stakeholders could benefit from improved collaboration. When it comes to the brain and nervous system, we are all patients in one way or another.

Much has been written about the importance of regional clusters for fostering innovation and business opportunities in life sciences. Indeed, Xconomy has helped to broaden awareness that the Northwest is a neighborhood of several neuroscience organizations.

In May, a chance meeting of Seattle neuroneighbors at the annual Neurotechnology Industry Organization meeting in Boston sparked an idea. I bumped into Lance Stewart, senior director of alliances at the Allen Institute for Brain Science, and we ended up comparing lists of Seattle neuroneighbors, and became energized about the potential for the Northwest’s growing neuroindustry cluster. Dr. John Henson, director of the NeuroNEXT Consortium at Swedish Neuroscience Institute, joined the discussion at an Xconomy Seattle reception in May, and an initiative to promote the region’s neuro activity was born.

Since those meetings, the three of us have assembled a list of stakeholders from all aspects of Pacific Northwest neurotech industry. We are bringing together these stakeholders for an initial invitation-only meeting in late August called the NeuroNeighborhood Leadership Forum to highlight the breadth of regional expertise in the nervous system. The event will include invited participants from British Columbia to Oregon. (If you’re someone with a stake in neuroscience in the Northwest and you didn’t get an invite, please send a request for an invitation to me at [email protected])

Promoting a Cluster

In 2010 the Neurotechnology Industry Organization published a worldwide listing of neurotech clusters. The report included a description of how community leaders can direct the growth of a cluster by promoting industry visibility, prioritizing a cluster’s needs, and then acting to fill these needs.

Local clusters have shown the value of a directed effort by industry leaders. Medical device executives, gathered in 2009 as guests of Perkins Coie’s Dick Rohde, and agreed that seed stage funding by individual angel investors wouldn’t be enough to build a neurotech cluster in Seattle. The group took up the challenge and with the WBBA’s support started the highly successful WINGS investment network.

Seattle already is known as a life sciences cluster, for its strength in cancer research, global health, and infectious disease. And it’s common to see focused trade groups come together to raise awareness of specialized strengths, and help form better connections. BioVentures for Global Health and the Washington Global Health Alliance bring international attention to Seattle organizations involved in infectious disease (e.g., Seattle BioMed, PATH, IDRI, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation). In another example, enterpriseSeattle recently identified the silent strength of the local video gaming industry. Working with industry executives, they are fulfilling a strategic plan to establish a complete set of resources and gain national visibility for this cluster.

The organizers of the NeuroNeighborhood Leadership Forum have defined the group broadly to include biotech and device companies, investors with special interests in neuroscience, clinical and academic researchers, research engineers, educators and writers, and legal experts. Speakers at the first Forum will include individuals from a startup device company, a patient advocacy organization, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, the NeuroNEXT Consortium at Swedish Neuroscience Institute, the Allen Institute for Brain Science, a private neuroscience research organization, and One Mind for Research, a visionary start-up organization intent on changing the landscape of brain disease.

Neuroscience is still a young frontier for commercial entities and research alike. The industry is growing rapidly, as demonstrated by growth in annual sales and rapidly increasing venture capital investment in neurodevices. Yet it remains one of the most difficult arenas for product development, suggesting the need for integration of effort. The region has pillars on which to build a leading national presence. Greater visibility will attract research scientists, engineers, resources, and investors. The Forum can help formulate collaborative initiatives to address the challenges in brain and nervous disorders, and focus those initiatives where our cluster can offer the most benefit. The organizers look forward to significant progress in the near future, and with insights from the NeuroNeighborhood Leadership Forum, our region could be central in that progress.

For more information please contact any of the organizers:

Bob Wilcox, CEO of Viket Medical Corp. ([email protected])

Lance Stewart, Senior Director of Alliances at the Allen Institute for Brain Science ([email protected])

Dr. John Henson, Director, NeuroNEXT Consortium at Swedish Neuroscience Institute ([email protected])

[Editor’s Note: This post was co-authored by Lance Stewart and John Henson]