Biotech Needs Charity, and Profit Motive, To Flourish


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than research, with shortened timelines, often measured in months rather than years. In contrast, Immunex’s blockbuster, etanercept (Enbrel), didn’t arrive on the market until more than 15 years after the company was started.

Money from venture capitalists across America is going more and more towards no research-development only companies (NRDO). Many companies now have just a few quarters to find success or burn through all their cash. Getting the money they need to survive was difficult even before the current economic crisis. And companies with a long-term focus, say on curing malaria, may not get any money at all. Many companies here in Seattle are shedding people, not hiring them. A new researcher at a biotech company today could be looking for another job in a few years, along with a lot of other people. Not a hopeful way to start a career.

So, what would I recommend to a new biomedical researcher with a fresh PhD?

I’d say, check out the non-profits. These are really the only groups that have shown growth in employment numbers over the last few years. They often combine the cutting edge approaches of universities with the sharp focus on human health found in the best biotechs. They have a long-term view, usually directed towards finding a solution to a multifaceted medical problem. And novel approaches are being created to permit these organizations to do more than they ever have before.

Seattle is unique in the country for the number, financial strength and cutting edge research being done by its non-profit research organizations. Most cities are lucky to have one or two high powered research institutions in their midst. We have more than 10 that together are working from over $2 billion in grants for biomedical research.

The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center remains close to the top 25 of all US institutions for discretionary grants from the federal government, with almost $220 million received last year (UW was number 5 with over $475 million received). Even smaller non-profits, such as PATH, the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute, the Infectious Disease Research Institute and the Institute for Systems Biology, are getting large grants from both governmental and non-governmental sources. Just within the last six months or so, the Institute for Systems Biology received a $14 million grant from the NIH to study flu, the Infectious Disease Research Institute received $7 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to study treatments for leishmaniasis and the Seattle Biomedical Research Institute received $2.3 million to examine malaria vaccines. There are many more grants funding other non-profits.

These institutions provide a large number of positions for biotechnology in the Seattle area. Written well before today’s current troubles, a report by the Washington Biotechnology and Biomedical Association revealed that non-university research institutions employed more than half of the estimated 7,300 biotechnology workers then in Seattle. The ability of these organizations to gather money from grants indicates that they can continue to support many researchers.

Besides having money for research, these organizations also provide a unique environment for young researchers. Surveys have shown that many starting scientists are looking for something more than a specialized career in academia. Several of our non-profit research institutions provide just that. In the latest poll, just released by The Scientist, examining the Best Places to Work for Postdocs in the United States, the Institute for Systems Biology and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center were in the top 15.

They have money, they are great places to work and they are focused on the hardest, cutting edge research problems in the world today. This involves such things as personalized medicine, cancer, tuberculosis, malaria, and pandemic flu. At the moment, however, these non-profit research institutions are focused on research, not on developing drugs for human therapeutics.

Yet, this is changing. They are no longer completely satisfied with just pushing the boundaries of science. Organizations such as the Infectious Disease Research Institute are already starting to develop their own therapeutics … Next Page »

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

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