Why Should the Public Care About Biotech? Why is the Answer Always Jobs?

4/24/09Follow @xconomy

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among the 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, and No. 8 in venture capital dollars invested in biotechnology, according to the study.

As Rivera correctly pointed out, if this study had been done 10 years ago, Washington probably would have ranked higher as a biotech center than it does now. In fact, when I examined biotech job growth for The Seattle Times in 2004, I found there were 19,300 people employed in the sector in the state the previous year, citing data from the WBBA. That suggests there was zero job growth in Washington biotech from 2003 to 2006—years during which the rest of the economy grew.

Many positive things have happened in the life sciences community in recent years, namely the growth of the global health sector through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, PATH, Seattle Biomedical Research Institute, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, the University of Washington, Washington State University, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, and Seattle Children’s. All of those institutions were cited as bright spots by Weed, the state’s new commerce director.

But he didn’t name a single for-profit biotech company that’s creating lots of jobs in Washington, because the state doesn’t have any. The region has some promising companies—Dendreon, Seattle Genetics, and ZymoGenetics—which are developing potential breakthrough therapies for prostate cancer, Hodgkin’s disease, and hepatitis C. Yet none of them is a major driver of job growth. If they play their business cards right, they might bring those treatments to the marketplace.  It will be years before that happens, if ever. Those companies might never become profitable.

I understand the desire to hold a press conference to reach out for public support. This is clearly a delicate time for biotech in Washington, as the 10-year, $350 million Life Sciences Discovery Fund is threatened by the state’s budget woes, and a few other states, namely Texas and Florida, are aggressively recruiting entrepreneurs and researchers to set up shop in their states, Rivera said. Huntsman pointed out that his experience during a couple of years on the Discovery Fund shows the state is still “teeming” with bright ideas. He noted that his agency has gotten 264 proposals from 38 organizations, and awarded just 21 competitive grants.

Maybe organizations like We Work For Health should pour more of their energy into explaining why  improvements to human health make a difference for society over a period of decades. I don’t really understand why that potential payoff is not enough, and why citizens can only be spoken to through a bullhorn about job security.

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