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 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 for diseases that have a hard time attracting venture capital. They want to create a product that can save human lives. With some new, creative approaches, the non-profit research institutions in Seattle are in a unique position to do much more than just provide research for biotechs to develop. They could develop the drugs themselves.

Stewart Lyman described a method to support drug development outside of the traditional venture-backed for-profit model. He proposed the creation of a non-profit institution by the state that acts like a biotech company. It operates as an NRDO, concentrating on drug development, not research but remains a non-profit. Stewart’s suggestion could focus getting drugs into people, drugs that might not turn the profit needed to sustain a commercial entity.

But there are some possible difficulties with such a non-profit, especially if the state sponsors it. My suggestion would be that instead of asking the state government to directly finance such a research charity, we push for Washington to approve a new business structure that has recently come on the scene – the low-profit limited liability corporation (L3C).

These novel organizations allow a non-profit to invest in a societal problem, such as global health, while incorporating many of the trappings of a for-profit company. Support of the L3C by charities, foundations, corporations and venture capital firms is greatly simplified. The L3C can attract capital from both private and philanthropic institutions. It can distribute profits in ways that benefit both non-profit and for-profit institutions. In essence, the ability to include support from non-profit sources allows venture capital to receive higher returns with reduced risk.

The need for a return on investment, required for other corporate entities, is substantially altered, allowing long-term support for research and development that directly affect social ills, such as human health. This hybrid structure, which has been approved in several states so far, would permit the creation of novel research institutions that could investigate innovative drugs and develop new therapies while attracting capital investment from both for-profit and non-profit sources.

Seattle is poised, as few other cities are, to take advantage of the research dynamo that our non-profit research institutions represent. With a little tweaking by our state government, new avenues for development of this research into innovative therapies could take place with capital investment from a variety of new sources.

My answer to the initial question posed, then, is to modify a phrase coined by the 19th century newspaper publisher Horace Greeley: “Go to non-profits, young scientist.”

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

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