What Can Washington Do to Revitalize Biotech? Q&A With Gov. Inslee

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improve the R&D tax credit vehicle to help startups.

X: You also mention regulations. Is there an example of one or two of those that are being streamlined or repealed that you think will be helpful?

JI: Probably not just directed to life sciences, but our regulatory climate in general—from land permitting to environmental regulations—we are doing a lean management exercise throughout the permitting process. We are developing an index to actually score our state’s regulatory climate. We’ll be first in the nation to do that, so we can focus all of our agencies to be effective. It’s not just for life sciences, it’s for aerospace and everything else.

X: Last year at the summit I seem to recall you said something about establishing a chief innovation officer for the state in your office. Did that ever happen? If so, who’s doing that job?

JI: It’s going to be in the Department of Commerce. We’re setting up a life science sector lead in the Department of Commerce. We think it’s important to have a focused place where the industry can have in working with all the agencies they have to deal with. That will happen in the next few months. I’m happy for that to get going.

X: So you haven’t named that person yet?

JI: We have not. One of the first orders of business is working on one of the things you talked about—to increase the rate of commercialization from our colleges, and enable entrepreneurs to do their great work.

X: I know you’ve been paying attention to economic development in the state for many years. Is there any strategy or approach that has been tried before that you think just doesn’t work, and you don’t want to do anymore?

JI: I think the days of just developing a sewer system and a road system and an industrial park and waiting for people to come is certainly not the most effective economic development policy. Right now, the most effective economic development policy is to create intellectual talent and to set up a way for it to foster growth in your community. The secret now is much more about intellectual talent than it is in infrastructure. It’s probably something that not all communities have figured out, but we certainly have in the state of Washington. We understand this industry is based on an intellectual ecosystem that supports creativity. People bounce ideas off one another, and from one company to another, and from one institution to another. That’s the name of the game. We get that.

There is one other thing I’d like to mention about ‘soft power.’ We talk about ‘soft power’ with statesmanship or foreign affairs. There’s a very important asset our state has, which does help us from a competitive position. That is our quality of life here. People can set up companies anywhere they want. They aren’t dependent on infrastructure. I can tell you from talking to CEOs that when people are looking into where to put a company, our lifestyle is a very important asset. Our mountains, our water, our clean air, our cultural amenities are very important when recruiting talent. This is a great place to start a company. There are a lot of smart, hip, young people who want to live here. It’s an asset, and we want to maintain it.

X: It’s one of the reasons I like living here. One last thing. Who do you lean on for advice in the biotech community? Not just the person you are looking to hire in this sector lead job, but people you trust and respect and who help you think about things.

JI: Just a stream of consciousness here, but Clay Siegall (CEO of Seattle Genetics), Chris (Rivera, the president of the WBBA), my friends at Philips. I hate to list names and leave someone out, it’s a great way to lose friends. I’ll just say I have a whole host of people who give me advice on this industry, and we meet regularly. Probably every month I’m having a meeting with one leader or another.

X: When you have these meetings, do you engage in constructive problem-solving, or does everybody just say ‘Wow, everything’s fantastic’?

JI: No, I think people feel we are in a very competitive environment. We do want to provide better access to venture capital. We are always looking for ways so the state can help in a more direct way. Investment is a possibility. I think people want to push the envelope here. We’re not satisfied with our efforts. This has such upside. The genetic research is going on is so exciting, we want to push the envelope. We can continue to push. The status quo is not acceptable to us. We want positive change.

X: Part of it, I think, does require a little bit of luck. If Dendreon had a little more luck, it may have made a difference.

JI: That’s true. Which pro team is going to synthesize something first and get it to work? You can’t totally predict that. But we’re going to help as many as we can.

X: Unfortunately, I can’t be at the summit this year, but I’m glad to hear you haven’t forgotten about it completely.

JI: I’ll tell you one reason I’m paying attention. It’s keeping some of my friends alive. I have friends who are alive because someone took a good idea, made an investment, and built a company around it. I know it can take $1 billion and a lot of risk. We’re not just talking about jobs here. It’s life. If you’re going to grow a company, this is a pretty good kind of company to grow. They’re not just creating widgets, they’re adding birthdays. It’s a good industry.

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4 responses to “What Can Washington Do to Revitalize Biotech? Q&A With Gov. Inslee”

  1. Jim says:

    It’s good to see the rah rah nature of this interview and hopefully something will change, but as we speak the Seattle region biotech industry is literally hemorrhaging people everyday who move out of the region to pursue jobs in other hotbed communities. If the pace of implementation of some of these grand ideas is not expedited, and if the participant companies who are here don’t get some of the local talent into their company soon, then the local biotech community will decay to the point of irrelevance (what would make Seattle any different than the far flung one-company pharma towns?).
    Also, address the needs of the young straight-out-of-college Ph.D.’s, who actually are the most serious issue as their fate seals the deal for future generations who will be turned away from science as they see that many of their peers have not found jobs.There are many Ph.D.’s from the UW, arguably some of the strongest in the nation, who graduate to not a single opportunity and wither away or move away. It’s a very sad situation.
    A good idea would be to establish an incubator infrastructure for biotech companies to share in Bothell where there is lots of available lab real-estate at very reasonable cost. Buy up the used equipment from all the failing companies and help launch a new generation companies. Offer SBRI type funding to help the companies establish themselves and grow. Right now the incubator space of Seattle is extremely limited and lacks the support and vitality of Boston or San Francisco. This could single-handedly change the fate of this region. Help unlock the talent and offer the community an opportunity to grow local ideas.

  2. Jim — I hear your points, and I wanted to make sure that the Governor heard there are some serious problems in the Seattle biotech industry. I wanted to hear him acknowledge the problems, and talk seriously about what can be done to improve things. Thanks for sharing your idea about a Bothell incubator–I hadn’t heard that one before.

  3. Boston Joe says:

    Thanks Luke for once again covering this very important topic. My guess is that the politicians’ standard of a thriving biopharma. cluster is much different then ours. Quickly checking the Careers section of the Massachusetts Biotechnology Council I can find over ten positions that I qualify for. At the moment I can not find one open position here in the Puget Sound region. This is scary considering how low our unemployment rate is here in the Seattle Metro area. He also has to realize it is not just about R&D start-ups (most of these are all “R” and no “D” by the way), but about large-scale biologics manufacturing. These facilities stay a long time, hire a lot of people (not just M.D./Ph.D. and lab. technicians like a research organization, though as Jim mentions this area needs help too), and hire all kinds of employees (scientists, engineers, quality, facilities, skilled manufacturing workers, support personnel, etc.). We seem to have no true large-scale manufacturing here outside of CMC Biologics. Also, SF and Boston have a growing biocommodities sector (biofuels, biochemicals, etc.). Not sure how profitable those enterprises will turn out to be but they are definitely adding good jobs to those two regions and are not just virtual companies with nice websites. Jim is right, at the end of the day there will be only so many biotech. clusters in the US and if we keep losing the critical mass, Seattle will drop out of the bunch and entire companies will just set up in one of the remaining clusters going forward.

  4. Carlos Danger says:

    Maybe I’m just another jaded biotech employee, but having a talking head like Inslee tell me I “should be pleased” about all the great things that are being regarding WA biotech really sticks in my craw. As Boston Joe pointed out, for certain skilled positions, you may be lucky to see a relevent job opening in Seattle once or twice a year. Who has the patience to wait it out a year or more while you burn through your savings, retirement account, etc.? BMS seems to be the only company adding new positions at the moment, while everyone else is treading water, still waiting for the economy to really pick up. I’m not sure what “commercialization efforts increasing commercialization” actually means? I recall a burst of new companies in the mid-2000’s, or at least companies doing a fair amount of hiring in the Seattle area (Alder, Allozyne, Trubion, VLST, Novo Nordisk, Spaltudaq, Theraclone, etc), but I can’t say there’s been much to be excited about the last 5 years. When is the last time the existing Accelerator graduated a company that actually made it to a Series B financing?