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foster our biotechnology industry and build up the local biomedical infrastructure. Legislative and biomedical leaders crafted this blueprint with a detailed agenda of ambitious aims, but ultimately it did not come to fruition. Many of its component parts went down in flames before they even got off the ground. Some of its goals survived, such as the (partial) funding of nascent bioscience companies via the Life Sciences Discovery Fund. Even then, it took a 2013 veto from Gov. Jay Inslee to save even a $9 million investment in the LSDF. The money that funds this initiative doesn’t come from state taxpayers, but from the Tobacco National Settlement Agreement. Only a fraction of the money that was going to be spent on smoking cessation programs and expanding the state’s biomedical research investments actually went to its intended use. The rest was diverted into other state programs or the general fund. No matter how you slice it, our state’s funding of biomedical initiatives appears to be minimal at best.
Moving Forward: What’s Our Plan?
Charles Dickens once said, “Reflect on your present blessings, of which every man has many; not on your past misfortunes, of which all men have some.” Washington state is indeed blessed with a number of world-class biotech companies and biomedical institutions, but it has lost many of its largest biotech companies, including Immunex, ICOS, Corixa, and a branch of the Bristol-Myers Squibb Pharmaceutical Research Institute. In addition, it competes against a number of other cities that can rightfully make the same claim to top-drawer academic powerhouses. Given the nature of the biopharmaceutical business, we would benefit by having more organizations here that can hire the employees that are laid off when their companies are acquired. I’m hoping that I never see a billboard that says, “Will the last biotech worker leaving Seattle turn out the lights.” Our local venture capital infrastructure is significantly smaller than other biotech hubs, and (Juno aside) out-of-state investors aren’t rushing to invest their money here.
Having said that, this isn’t a time for hand wringing: it’s a time for rolling up sleeves and coming up with some creative ideas to see if we can reverse the trends I’ve outlined above. We need to have a regional meeting not to share our collective angst, but to solicit the best ideas to craft an actionable plan that is more than slogans and dreams. As French author Antoine de Saint Exupery opined, “A goal without a plan is just a wish.”
The South Lake Union area is sometimes referred to as Seattle’s biotech hub. Clustered there are Seattle BioMed, the Institute for Systems Biology, branches of Seattle Children’s Hospital and the University of Washington, PATH, and of course, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Jobs at these institutions are an important (and very large) component of our local biomedical ecosystem, and most of them are engaged in work that can be characterized as biotechnology. However, these are non-profit biomedical research institutions. They should not be mistaken for biotechnology companies because they operate under different economic rules, their central focus is not on the commercialization of their science, and they will not be acquired by a bigger institution. There are some biotechs located in the area, but they occupy only a small fraction of the total square footage as well as biomedical jobs. Given Amazon’s growing presence in the area, I worry that small biotechs are going to get priced out of South Lake Union.
Despite its current problems, Big Pharma is an irresistible economic force, with sales and profit margins that most companies can only dream of. They are richer than Croesus, seemingly immune to even multi-billion dollar screw-ups (e.g. Bristol-Myer Squibb’s purchase and subsequent write off of much of its $2.5 billion investment in Inhibitex). The smaller biotechs that they interact with are easily movable objects. Knowing these things can help us decide what incentives and penalties might be used to craft a coherent policy that might encourage the growth of biotech in the region.
The current economic climate in our state appears to be worse than it was back in 2004, with the McCleary decision (a state Supreme Court requirement for the state to adequately fund basic education) weighing heavily on state legislators. It would be wonderful if one of our area billionaires decided to invest even more of their personal fortunes in our local bioscience institutions. Money from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation already supports projects at PATH and Seattle BioMed, and Paul Allen has done the area a tremendous favor by creating the Allen Institute for Brain Science. It’s also been suggested that they might want to bankroll a new technology university in the state, and probably a thousand other causes as well. I don’t think we can wait around for the super-rich to start writing big checks. We need to craft a plan without counting on manna from heaven.
We need to ask ourselves: is the status quo the best we can do? Should we simply accept our minor league status, skip the planning meetings and legislative info sessions, and stop gnashing our collective teeth? If we truly aspire to compete with the best, then we need to enable our biomedical enterprise to help drive the growth of the industry and contribute to the health of the people of our state, all fifty states, and beyond. Can we figure out a way to incentivize acquirers of local biotechs to keep the companies going in their present locations, and agree to retain a majority of the employees at the time of acquisition? Can we attract new contract research organizations (a big growth area in recent years) to Seattle? Baxter International just announced that it’s leasing a 200,000 square foot facility in Boston’s Kendall Square to house its new Baxalta R&D spinoff. Is it possible to get other companies to relocate to Washington state? What’s the best way to play to our strengths in immunology, cancer research, genomics, and world health? Or should we focus on other areas to add diversity to our current successes?
Bringing about effective change is not going to be easy, especially with our difficult economic situation. The McCleary decision has us competing with one arm tied behind our backs, but that’s not a reason to give up. Maybe I’m the only one worried about this issue. But if you’re as concerned as I am, start up a dialog with your colleagues and coworkers. Voice your concerns to local officials and to your state legislators. Share your thoughts and ideas in the comments section below. Maybe if we all start rowing together in the same direction, we can get good things to happen. Change won’t come easily. As George Bernard Shaw once put it, “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”