Biotech Jet-Setter, Chris Rivera, Aims to Build Washington’s Life Sciences Cluster, Part 2

1/13/09Follow @xconomy

Yesterday, we ran the first part of an extended interview with Chris Rivera, the new president of the Washington Biotechnology & Biomedical Association. He talked about how his skills are different from those of his predecessor, Jack Faris, and the assets this region has compared to Boston and San Francisco, the two global life sciences capitals where he has spent much of his career. Today, we follow up with how he intends to raise the profile of Seattle as one of those hotspots.

Xconomy: I see you have four old-school turnstile Rolodexes on your desk. Are you working through all of that?

Chris Rivera: Those are Jack’s (Faris). My cards are all over the place [pointing to another Rolodex on another part of the desk]. I’ve gone through a few of his.

X: How many people do you know in Jack’s Rolodex? Is your network in a whole different sphere of industry insiders?

CR: My Rolodex is very different. I’m meeting a lot of people I’ve never met before. I’m meeting angel investors, association leaders, law firms, accounting firms. My Rolodex is really with a lot of investors I got to know when I started building divisions in companies in Boston and San Francisco. I know a lot of former colleagues, who are now consulting or doing other things. One of the things I’m trying to do is reach out to people I’ve encountered over my career, and start to have them look to Seattle, and hopefully make an introduction to what’s going on up here. A lot of it will be letting them know about Washington’s life sciences industry, and why they should be interested in it. Our Rolodexes are complementary. There’s very little overlap.

X: What are your goals in the first six months or year?

CR: Strategically, first and foremost, I want to make sure we’re providing value to our members. It’s about thinking of us as a business. We need to do a good job of marketing and communicating why there’s a benefit to being a member of WBBA. Second, it’s not just Washington, but nationally and internationally, we need to help facilitate access to capital. Are there one or two strategies we can facilitate, and push through on a local, state level, or just bringing more investors in here to look at companies that trying to get financing. Third, is making sure we do what we can as an association that licensing technology out of institutions is not as cumbersome as it has been in the past. I want to make sure we have relationships to help get companies started. Fourth, I want to help facilitate the recruiting and retention of talent. The reason I based my company in San Francisco (Hyperion), is that I went from two employees to 25 employees in two weeks after signing a financial transaction. I hoped to base the company here, but I couldn’t find the talent I needed. I hope we can help facilitate and work with the universities and other companies to develop talent and keep it here.

X: What about interaction with the general public? I’m curious what reaction you get from the general public when you say you run the biotech association, or you’re a biotech guy?

CR: I’m generalizing, but I don’t think the knowledge or understanding of the biotech or biomedical industry is as well ingrained here as in Boston or San Francisco. In those two markets, if nothing else, people can at least come up with a company name or two in the area. I haven’t seen that to the same extent here. People still think of biotech as very much just a bunch of research. When you say biologics, or medical devices, people haven’t had exposure to it. Part of it is that we don’t have a company here that’s analogous to Microsoft, or Boeing, or Starbucks, or Costco in our industry. We had Immunex, and they were like an Amgen or Genzyme or Genentech, but we don’t anymore.

X: So how do you change that public perception? Or do you?

CR: I don’t think that should be our main focus right now. Our main focus should be on the industry itself. Getting the industry up and running. As long as we continue to communicate and market the life sciences industry, we do a good job of communicating what the benefits are to the general population, with products and innovations these companies are developing and how it relates to them on a personal level, whether it’s alternative fuel, or a catheter, or a new drug that provides benefit, hopefully they’ll gain appreciation. At least on our own website, we need to communicate the economic impact the industry has on the state. How many companies, how many employees, what’s the average salary? I don’t think we have the data. I want to collect the data and to communicate it, and to show it’s the tax base it represents.

X: Do you suspect member companies will lean on you for advice on commercialization as they get to that stage?

CR: I hope so. That’s one of the things I’d like to offer. I’ve had a pretty broad experience building and launching commercial, innovative technologies. Some have worked out really well, some not to so well. I’ve learned a lot. I have a lot of experience in managed care, and with health care economics and all the licensing of drugs. Every time I meet with an executive, especially from a startup company, if I can help, offer advice, I’m happy to.

X: Have any of your interactions with people so far surprised you, in terms of what they’d like to see you accomplish?

CR: For the most part, I’ve had a very broad welcome. Everybody I’ve reached out to and asked for 30 minutes of their time, everybody has been very accommodating. They realize there are challenges they face, and articulate them to me, saying ‘you’ve got a tough job’ because there are things I can have an impact on, but there are things on the state and national level that I probably can’t have influence on. One of the big frustrations I hear about is capital, and access to it. I want to help facilitate it. We’re not going to be an investor, but we can help bring people together.

X: Are you going to tap your Rolodex to bring people to Invest Northwest (March 17-18 at Bell Harbor Conference Center, Pier 66 in Seattle)?

CR: I’m trying to. We just sent out an email invitation last night to Invest Northwest to 12,000 people around the world. I’m trying to supplement that with people in my Rolodex to get them up here. For example, I’m inviting executives I’ve gotten to know in my career who are now in high places in Big Pharma and in Big Biotech, to attend, or in some cases be a moderator or a keynote speaker.

X: We’ve talked before about how Seattle has fallen a few pegs down the standings of top life sciences clusters from where it was five years ago, no matter what measurements you want to use to rank them. What are the metrics of success, and where would you like to see Seattle get on that list?

CR: This cluster will be measured by the number of companies, number of employees in the industry, and also the products that make it to the marketplace and get used by patients. I still think we can be one of the top half-dozen or so clusters over time. But it’s going to take a concerted effort by all the stakeholders involved in life sciences. One of the markets I look at as kind of a model to learn from is San Diego. If you look at where they’ve come in 10 years, in development, they’ve really made headway in a relatively short period of time. We have all the elements here. We have research, scientific expertise. Capital is here. We have a wonderful place to live. We just have to make sure we align the resources in the same direction and get some critical mass.

X: Do we need a few lucky breaks?

CR: It wouldn’t hurt. You know it’s better to be lucky than good. You create your own luck in some ways, by hard work, and getting people aligned. But the more shots on goal you have, the more chances you have for some of those lucky breaks.

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