Hey, Don’t Forget the Puget Sound Life Sciences Universe!

2/9/09Follow @xconomy

Techies, with their cool iPhone apps and Internet software, get all the attention. So a couple of Seattle biotechies squawked at me a couple weeks ago when the Washington Technology Industry Association unveiled an academic study that traced the origins of the “Puget Sound Tech Universe” over the past three decades.

The WTIA study examined the career paths of company founders who started at a place like Microsoft or the University of Washington before they gained critical experience and inspiration to go off and create something new. The analysis purposely left out biotechs—after all, they had to draw the line somewhere at 711 companies. Nothing quite like this visual poster has ever been done for the Puget Sound’s life sciences community, but Sanjaya Joshi reminded me of an analysis of Seattle’s biotech roots that he drew up in a 2004 paper, and updated in 2007.

Joshi, president of Kirkland, WA-based Userspace, runs an IT services company for biotech organizations that have extreme data needs, like the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle. His paper identified three critical anchors of biotech’s early days in the Puget Sound region, which have served as critical training grounds for biotech entrepreneurs: the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, the University of Washington, and Seattle-based Immunex. It shows how the “Hutch” served as a base of operations for immunologists Christopher Henney and Steve Gillis, who went on to co-found Immunex in 1981. Immunex veterans went on to start notable operations like Icos, Corixa, Dendreon, Targeted Genetics, Frazier Healthcare Ventures, and Trubion Pharmaceuticals.

Joshi’s boxy flowchart that shows these and many other connections looks kind of confusing to my eye, especially compared with the slick astronomy-inspired depiction of Washington’s tech companies.

Even though his chart can appear disorganized at times, Joshi makes some interesting observations based on his exercise in connecting the dots over a 25-year period. He did interviews with many prominent players in the region, including Bruce Carter, former CEO of ZymoGenetics, Tom Clement of Pathway Medical Technologies, Chris Elias of PATH, Bruce Montgomery of Gilead Sciences, and Clay Siegall of Seattle Genetics.

Based on those interviews and other research, Joshi concludes, Seattle has become a second-tier life sciences hub behind the leaders in Boston and the San Francisco Bay Area. He dubbed it the “BioForest.” The key ingredients that went into the mix for Seattle: excellent academic research centers, a critical mass of talented people and connections formed over the years, a mix of startups and mid-sized companies in different stages of development, and an attractive outdoor lifestyle that helps with recruiting.

This blend has led the region to build up strengths in immunology, cancer biology, ultrasound, and cardiac management technologies like defibrillators, Joshi says. He notes that his analysis isn’t fully up to date and, for example, doesn’t account for the loss of Merck’s Rosetta Inpharmatics division—which spun out of the founding efforts of Stephen Friend and Lee Hartwell at the Hutch, as well as Leroy Hood of the Institute for Systems Biology. Of course, the loss of Icos a couple years ago led to the creation of Seattle-based Calistoga Pharmaceuticals, and an intriguing TB Drug Discovery Initiative inside the Infectious Disease Research Institute. Sounds like it may be time for somebody to do an update on what important new projects will emerge from the scattering of the Rosetta talent pool.

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  • Sanjaya Joshi

    Thank you for mentioning this, Luke. I had started this work in 2004 (published in 2005) entirely in my copious spare time, as compared to the “sponsored” work by Dr. Mayer. Eye-popping graphics on the Tech Universe!

    I have tasted the local entrepreneurial water for a while now, and remain passionate about the local economy and tax base provided by the life-sciences industry…

    I fully agree with Stewart Lyman’s Xconomist Forum posting today about the state government involvement which has been sorely lacking for small business — almost all the state money in the past (owing to the State Constitution) has gone to educational and non-profit entities. John Castle (at UW Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship) had commented a while back that educational institutions and non-profits were a “zero-sum-game”. The region will grow as a tax base only when the state government realizes that it is the ‘bottom-up’ small business scaffolding that builds the tax base.

    With regards to boxiness of the chart, I remember the quote from the movie Cadillac Man: “boxy, but good”!