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An Entrepreneur’s Quest to Make Seattle a Genome Sciences Hub

Xconomy Seattle — 

Ivan Liachko turned postdoctoral research at the University of Washington into a company whose genomics tools are now found in laboratories researching human, animal, and plant health. His firm, Phase Genomics, was one of the first startups to come out of UW’s genome sciences department.

As a first-time entrepreneur working from UW’s incubator more than five years ago, Liachko says, he didn’t think much about the rarity of genomics startups spun out of university research. But as a CEO of a growing company, Liachko now sees missed opportunities for UW and the Puget Sound region. Some technologies developed in UW labs have found homes elsewhere in the country, he says. Other research just sits on a shelf. Liachko says part of the problem is that Seattle’s life sciences community lacks a culture of commercialization. He wants to change that.

Liachko is the main organizer of Genome Startup Day, an event intended to bring together the academic and business sides of the Seattle genomics community in hopes of sparking connections that will lead to new companies. The agenda for today’s event includes panel discussions and startup presentations, but there will be no elevator speeches or onstage pitches to investors. The event was conceived as a way for entrepreneurs to communicate directly with scientists and would-be entrepreneurs.

“The hope with Genome Startup Day is it’s like an opening chess move toward a more organized movement,” Liachko says.

The region that might have the strongest claim to being a genomics hub is San Diego. Home to gene-sequencing giant Illumina (NASDAQ: ILMN), the city has spawned a slew of other companies in diagnostics, DNA analysis, drug discovery, and more. The Bay Area and Cambridge, MA, too, have numerous companies playing in some aspect of genomics technology.

Culture plays a role in the differences in commercialization activity in Seattle compared to other parts of the country, according to Douglas Fowler, a UW professor of genome sciences who said he was offering his own perspective and did not speak on behalf of the university. As an example, Fowler remembered his experience interviewing for a Stanford faculty position. Sitting in a Palo Alto, CA, hotel bar, he noticed an entrepreneur nearby working on a pitch deck.

“That’s not Seattle,” Fowler says. “We don’t have that culture.”

Though UW and other institutions in the region fund and produce vast amounts of genomics-related research, Fowler says there is probably less commercialization activity than there could be. Seattle has incubators, venture capital, and genomics companies—but all are in shorter supply compared to the Bay Area, he says. In some cases, Seattle-area research ends up … Next Page »

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