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 somewhere else. South San Francisco genomics startup Jungla was based on research that started at UW when co-founder and CEO Carlos Araya was a doctoral researcher working with Fowler. In July, Jungla was acquired in a deal worth up to $65 million by a Bay Area neighbor, gene-testing giant Invitae (NYSE: NVTA). (Araya is one of the scheduled speakers at Genome Startup Day.)

Life Science Washington, an industry trade group, was unable to provide information specifically related to genomics companies in the state. A 2019 economic impact report from the group counts 1,144 life science organizations, which includes companies as well as academic and nonprofit research institutions spread across 110 cities. Seattle leads the way with 440 life science entities.

The report notes that one factor driving the industry’s growth in the state is the convergence of the life sciences and computing. Adaptive Biotechnologies (NASDAQ: ADPT) is one example. The Seattle company sequences the DNA of immune cells for clinical applications and pharmaceutical research. Adaptive’s own research includes a partnership with Microsoft (NASDAQ: MSFT) focused on developing a blood test that could diagnose multiple diseases.

If Seattle lacks the entrepreneurial drive found in the Bay Area and elsewhere, Liachko says that culture needs to be created. Information technology is one pillar a Seattle genomics hub can stand on. As the home to Microsoft, Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN), and other tech companies, the Puget Sound region brims with software expertise. Genomics research is becoming increasingly information driven, and startups will need workers with technical chops and data analytics experience, Liachko says.

One factor that might hinder Seattle-area genomics startups is money. According to the National Venture Capital Association’s 2019 Yearbook, Washington state ranked fourth in venture capital investments last year, but it was a distant fourth. The top state for venture capital investment was California, where firms spread $77.3 billion across 4,063 deals. New York and Massachusetts round out the top three states, which together accounted for 79 percent of the total $131 billion invested. In Washington state, $2.9 billion was invested across 366 deals.

Liachko acknowledges that Seattle falls shy of the top regions for venture capital investment, but he says firms are looking to invest in the best technologies regardless of location. It’s up to Seattle-area scientists and entrepreneurs to show what the Puget Sound region can offer. That effort has to start sometime, and Liachko says it might as well be now.

“By sparking more commercialization, we will attract more investment dollars into the area,” Liachko says. “But if there is no commercialization, the investment dollars won’t come.”

Photo by Flickr user Tiffany Von Arnim, cropped and used under a Creative Commons license