Washington’s Life Sciences Ambassador, Jack Faris, Exits the Stage

12/29/08Follow @xconomy

From the minute he took the job as Washington state’s biotech ambassador, Jack Faris had a dream of making this mysterious business a little less intimidating, a little more embraceable, for the general public. Faris, a career ad man who helped Boeing airplanes capture the public imagination, wanted to do the same thing for an industry that aspires to create more effective new medicines.

Now Faris, 62, is retiring after almost four years since taking the job as president of the Washington Biotechnology & Biomedical Association. So it’s a good time to look back on how he performed. He officially hands over the group’s leadership job to Chris Rivera on Wednesday.

The biggest accomplishment on Faris’s watch came when Gov. Christine Gregoire jawboned the legislature to establish a 10-year, $350 million fund to spur more commercialization of basic biomedical research in the state. The idea, which took years of industry lobbying, was to strengthen the region’s competitive standing versus the world leaders in Boston and the San Francisco Bay Area. But as Gregoire herself reminded the industry at its annual meeting in October, she put a lot of her political capital into this initiative, and it passed the state Senate by just one vote. Nobody could argue that biotech in Washington has amassed anything close to the clout of the aerospace giant Boeing, which has proven it can get new laws written when it threatens to move out of the state.

“With Boeing, there’s an understanding of the economic significance of it to the region, and a civic pride,” Faris says. “We’re building progress on both fronts with the life sciences sector.”

Faris is the first to admit he doesn’t have much data to back up this assertion. But he pointed to a couple examples that he finds encouraging. One is from a statewide poll of 507 voters in June. They were asked two questions related to the biotech industry. The first was simply whether people agree or disagree that Washington state has an extraordinary opportunity to be a world center for global health innovation—89 percent agreed. The second question asked people to rank, on a scale of 0 to 10, how important the life sciences sector is to the future of the region, with 0 being unimportant, and 10 being extremely important. People gave life sciences an 8.2 score, he says.

There is no comparative data to say whether this is improved from when Faris took the job, or to say how this stacks up with other industries, like aerospace, software, coffee, or retailing.

Even so, Faris said he senses progress in raising the profile of the life sciences industry. He was one of the people who pushed the idea that the movers and shakers at the Seattle Chamber of Commerce build their 2008 annual leadership retreat around the theme of strengthening the region as a … Next Page »

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