Biotech Needs Charity, and Profit Motive, To Flourish

Opinion

Is it still possible to have a long, successful career doing research at a biotech company in the Seattle area? A young scientist today has only a slim chance of working for the next Immunex or Icos. Companies that last even 10 or 15 years are very rare. Yet a closer look at some of Seattle’s vigorous non-profit research organizations reveals some opportunities in surprising places.

Stewart Lyman wrote in February about the dismal picture regarding biotechnology in Puget Sound. Few companies are hiring. Most are not successful by almost any measure. Xconomy’s Luke Timmerman has reported in detail on the dire financial circumstances of so many biotech companies in the area, which has led to layoffs and other cutbacks in recent weeks.

It got me thinking about a very basic question.

Can a newly minted PhD spend their life working on fundamental research problems in biology here in the Puget Sound region? I’m focusing on basic research, which is the necessary driver for anything associated with biotechnology. A robust biotech environment cannot survive without a local nucleus of biomedical research.

Before the late 1970s, there were really only two career tracks for a young biologist interested in working on the critical problems affecting human health: get onto a tenure track path at a research university or go to work for a large pharmaceutical company.

However, there were only a limited number of tenure track positions available at universities. And pharmaceutical companies were much more interested in chemists than biologists for research.

The early biotechnology companies offered a third way, one where new technologies could be coupled with entrepreneurial spirit to create vertically integrated organizations that were involved in all aspects of therapeutic intervention in human health. There were lots of jobs available for researchers wanting to discover and develop products for medical purposes.

I moved to Seattle in the early 1980s to begin working at one of these early biotech companies, Immunex, as a research scientist. Since then, I have worked on a wide variety of basic science problems in corporate settings, helped create novel therapeutics, designed research protocols, written papers and submitted grants. Some of the molecules I worked on were developed into products that went through clinical trials and ended up being given to patients. I’ve worked at the bench as a staff scientist and as a vice-president in charge of research. My time here in Seattle has become a career.

How about research today in Seattle? The University of Washington is one of the top universities in the country, based on the amount of grants its scientists receive from the National Institutes of Health. According to numbers compiled by the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), in 2006 there were over 14,000 students just starting in a biomedical doctorate program. The total number of people attempting to get a PhD in biomedical science is over 70,000. About 7,000 new PhDs are awarded each year in biomedicine. Yet for the last 30 years, the number of tenured biomedical scientists in the US has been steady at about 20,000. The UW only has about 1,200 tenured professors total on the entire campus. Making a career in academia is still tough.

Are biotechnology companies a viable alternative for a research career? Biotech companies today are generally smaller and geared more towards development … Next Page »

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Richard Gayle is the founder and president of SpreadingScience. Follow @

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