I am quite often asked, in some form or another, “What can [STATE][LOCAL] government do to spur on an innovation-based economy in [SEATTLE][WASHINGTON]?”
Well, as I said on a panel at the Technology Alliance meeting in Leavenworth yesterday, the single biggest correlate to the strength of an innovative biotechnology industry in any geography is the quality of the major research institutions. The two heavyweight biotech hubs are Boston and the San Francisco Bay Area. No surprise there:
—in Boston, there are Harvard, MIT, Tufts, Boston University, and various smaller but world-renowned research institutes such as the Whitehead and the Broad; and,
—in the Bay Area, there are Stanford, UC Berkeley, and UC San Francisco.
Seattle and San Diego probably represent the next tier, with UW, the Hutch, Institute for Systems Biology, and others in Seattle, and UC San Diego, The Scripps Research Institute, Salk Institute, and others in San Diego.
If the quality of the major research institutions is the critical correlate, then anything that can be done to bolster the quality of that research would represent at least one highly fruitful way in which to improve Seattle’s competitiveness as a biotechnology center. One way to bolster research is to create additional funds for researchers already in place, and the state of Washington has already done that with the creation of the Life Sciences Discovery Fund. However, I would argue that an even better use of these or any funds brought to bear in this effort should be utilized instead to attract and endow chairs for “rockstar” researchers who have made their names elsewhere. Doing this is a highly-focused, high-profile activity that will have the ripple effect of bringing with them:
—already established quivers filled with grant funding;
—high-profile reputations, raising the profile and reputation of our research institutions (with many additional ripple effects like future recruitment of faculty and top students); and,
—top-notch students and post-docs.
Done right, this focused approach will do far more, with its continued “ripple-on-a-ripple” effect in the long term to solidify and bolster the productivity and profile of our research institutions than almost anything I have seen that is currently being done here or elsewhere.
One fantastic, if not polarizing, example of this involves Lee Hood’s recruitment to the University of Washington. Without saying much about the who’s and where’s of the people and money behind recruiting a superstar of Lee’s stature from Caltech to start a new department of Molecular Biotechnology at the University of Washington in 1992, nobody can dispute the huge positive effect Lee’s presence has had on biotech in Seattle, reaching well beyond the entrepreneurs and scientists who trained under Lee at UW, the faculty that he played a part in recruiting, and the companies that he and those students and faculty have gone on to start.
If we the people of Washington want Seattle to be a sustainable and robust world center of biotechnology, then we need to let our state and local governments know that they should consider committing long-term funding (endowment) of prestigious chairs and professorships at our research institutions which those institutions can use to attract true impact-making superstars of basic life science research. A handful or two of such hires will go far further to cement and grow the innovation-based biotechnology industry here for decades to come.
[Editor’s note: this editorial is also running on the OVP blog.]