DC Matters, But Biotech Can’t Neglect City Hall
Biotechnology companies who’ve taken time to focus on politics over the last few years have focused most of their attention on national-level issues. That’s understandable given the renewal of the Prescription Drug User Fee Act that controls FDA deadlines for reviewing new drug applications, legislation that would make it possible for makers of cheaper “biosimilar” drugs to compete with innovative companies, and now proposals to extend healthcare coverage to all Americans.
Each of these issues has an obvious impact on future business and biotech executives have significant lobbying support on these issues. National and state-level business organizations like the Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) have identified key issues, provided access to key lawmakers, and created plug-and-play messaging suitable to their respective issues.
That sort of assistance crumbles when the focus shifts closer to home, at the city level. Most biotech executives don’t spend any significant time concentrating on local issues, and I happen to think this is a dangerous trend that must be reversed.
Here in Seattle, city leaders have extolled the virtues of biotech. Seattle’s South Lake Union neighborhood has been given particular attention, with goals of creating a hub for scientific research, biotech companies, and global health to compete with other such clusters across the country.
That sounds great, until you look at the specifics. Local developers have done a good job of building and/or planning buildings for this purpose. However, the city is behind on infrastructure spending and there is not enough electrical power infrastructure in place to support all the lab space being created. That’s an obvious operational problem that Seattle’s city hall missed, but not all local issues so clearly affect biotech companies.
Here in the greater Seattle area we haven’t figured out how to fund and operate convenient transit service, even within the city limits. Traffic in the main east/west arterial (Mercer Street) in our future biotech center is miserable and has been miserable for decades. The current plan to address this will make the streetscape more attractive, which is a good thing since drivers will be spending more time looking at it. The current plan actually increases east/west traffic time on the corridor. Seattle schools perhaps can no longer be termed in “disarray,” but nobody is satisfied with the quality of education, particularly science education, across the system.
These issues are important because if biotech executives want their companies to grow, they have to be able to attract and retain great people. Seattle already has a recruiting handicap of having no large “anchor” companies with headquarters here, like Genzyme and Biogen Idec have in Boston. School, traffic, and infrastructure problems don’t make it easier to attract top talent.
After 10 years working within the biotech sector, I recently tossed my hat in the political ring and ran for Seattle City Council. I’m not a political newcomer, having worked with regulatory agencies across six states, been highly active on city environmental and land use issues, and helped write legislation at the state and local level. There were many reasons why I ran, but an important one is I believe we need better biotech expertise in our government. I see great potential in our industry to provide clean and green jobs with high economic multipliers.
Because of this experience, I was happy when Xconomy asked if I would be interested in writing about the intersection of biotechnology and local politics given my relatively unique experience with both worlds. There is no question in my mind biotech leaders must spend more time following and participating in politics at the local level.
Our sector needs expert help at the local level. Shortly after I started penning the first draft of this article, a local community leader attacked the city’s focus on biotech as a waste of resources. It was a broadside I hope the industry takes seriously, because it was a vivid example of how badly misunderstood our sector is.
Even setting aside the science, the metrics and needs of our industry are not easy to understand. That makes it all the more important for biotech executives to spend time on local politics, educating candidates about the nuances of our sector and contributing to candidates whose policy ideas and expertise merit the help.
We have work to do in this area. Our otherwise excellent Washington Biotech & Biomedical Association (WBBA) has an internal prohibition against endorsing and contributing in local politics. That was a bit of a surprise to me, and something I would strongly encourage the WBBA board to change.
During the campaign, I was surprised how few biotech executives were eager to meet or return calls. I’m well aware that the economy and funding environment played a role, since a candidate call during a campaign is certainly going to involve an ask for money. Other candidates in other races had similar problems. The stark reality of politics is these calls must be returned if our industry expects to be able to effectively shape local policies down the road. Frankly, biotech executives should seek out politicians running for local office and take time early in the campaign to chat about issues important to the sector.
While not as obvious as FDA regulations and state economic policies, local politics matter. It’s probably not smart to wait to get involved until your generators are running more often than predicted to keep your critical experiments alive, until your recruiting is stalled because of poor local schools, and/or until your current employees abandon you because they are tired of always being stuck in traffic.
I greatly appreciated the help I did receive during the campaign from my friends in the biotech sector. But the experience and especially the attitudes I encountered on the campaign trail underscore the fact we can and should do more as a sector when it comes to participating in local politics.