Seattle Biotech Needs More Bars, Less University Red Tape, and the Same Daring Attitude, & Other Highlights from Seattle Life Sciences 2029

10/21/09Follow @xconomy

Seattle has more than its share of brilliant biologists for a medium-sized American city. But if people and ideas are going to properly mix to create a thriving local biotech industry over the next two decades, we could use a few more common places with intellectual sparks—like bars. At least according to one of the region’s top life sciences entrepreneurs.

When in Boston and San Francisco, Stephen Friend says he gets most of his work done by socializing with scientific colleagues he meets for coffee or a drink. Not so here.

“The way Seattle is currently set up, I don’t have a place I go for a coffee or a drink. A place where I run into the people who are ready to try a new idea. That’s an important anchoring ingredient that we’re missing, and should be happening,” says Friend, the former senior vice president of cancer research at Merck, and co-founder of Seattle’s Rosetta Inpharmatics.

(Coffee itself is certainly easy to find, but Stephen may want to check out Xconomy’s handy Greater Seattle Coffee Cluster guide for the spots that are best known as innovation mixing pots.)

That was one of the many insights that emerged during Seattle Life Sciences 2029, a sold-out event Xconomy organized on Monday night at Seattle Biomedical Research Institute (see the photo gallery here). This event brought together a group of industry visionaries who have rarely, if ever, appeared on the same stage in front of a local audience: Ben Shapiro, the former executive vice president of basic research at Merck; Steve Gillis, the managing director of Arch Venture Partners who co-founded Immunex and Corixa; and Friend. The panel was moderated by Carl Weissman of Accelerator and OVP Venture Partners, and biotech pioneer Leroy Hood offered his thoughts in a video message on how Seattle can make strides to get bigger and better at biotech over the coming two decades.

This came up during a freewheeling audience Q&A, which covered a lot of ground. I’m not going to recap everything here—I think with some of the jokes, you probably just had to be there—but here were some of the best little acorns that that I squirreled away with my digital recorder, which are edited as always for length and clarity:

Steve Gillis

Steve Gillis

Steve Gillis on what entrepreneurs need to do to adapt in today’s financial climate: “Entrepreneurs need to be open to combining their ideas with existing organizations. Or combining those ideas with like-minded new proposals from other folks, as opposed to always wanting to have what I call their own pie. In the world in which we live, in which money is quite tight, people have to be open to joining forces earlier in evolution. That will result in everyone having a smaller slice of the pie, but it will also result in the possibility of someday eating pie. Instead of just dreaming about it. It’s a fundamental mind-set that needs to change.”

Stephen Friend on how universities need to relax rules on how inventive faculty spend their time: “The concept that you are either inside or outside of the university, and that some fraction of your time has to be spent inside the university, and that some percentage of your time has to be spent in your role as a tenured professor at the university, that has to go away. It’s the concept that someone could teach courses, and can be a role model for education, has to be kept separate from someone who’s actually running a company. The best example I know of is what MIT is trying to do. That organization, the person who leads it, she [Susan Hockfield] feels the university has to become, in a broad sense, the incubator. I don’t think many people, particularly at some universities in this town, are ready to think that creatively. It’s a mistake.”

Ben Shapiro on how Seattle ranks as a hub for life sciences innovation: “It’s worth … Next Page »

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