Spokane’s Latest Idea: Invest in New Med School To Create Biotech Hub

4/13/11Follow @xconomy

The state budget is a mess, but that isn’t stopping the folks in Spokane, WA from thinking big about planting seeds today for biotech.

I’ve been in Spokane the past couple days to give a keynote talk on the Northwest biotech industry at an event organized by an entrepreneurial networking group called LaunchPad Inland Northwest. Quite a few of the 120 or so people in the audience, at Washington State University’s Riverpoint Campus, were buzzing about getting a fully-integrated four-year medical school curriculum based in Spokane.

The idea of medical training in Spokane isn’t new. Aspiring physicians have long been able to get least part of their four years of instruction and clinical rotations in Spokane through the University of Washington’s program which serves five states in the Pacific Northwest. But slots in this Wyoming, Washington, Alaska, Montana, and Idaho (WWAMI) program are limited, and many rural areas constantly struggle to get enough medical care.

Instead of always having students converge in Seattle for the second critical year of study, the Inland Northwest contingent wants to make some slots of the WWAMI program available to accommodate students in Spokane. If students could get all the medical training for an MD in Spokane, before starting their residency years, then the thinking goes, many will put down roots in the community and help attract more of their bright young peers. Over time, the hope is that an established Spokane medical school could play the same kind of catalytic role for a biotech industry that the University of Washington and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center have throughout history in Seattle.

This idea isn’t funded yet, and in the current budget environment, it wouldn’t be a surprise if it never was. But I do think many Seattleites would be surprised by how much activity there already is in Spokane’s hospital cluster, and with some small businesses doing interesting things in medical devices, imaging technologies, telemedicine, electronic health records, and genetic testing.

The local NBC-TV affiliate, KHQ, interviewed me at the event to ask about how important a medical school is to the formation of a biotech hub. The whole thing kind of stunned me—a TV station wants to talk about the biotech industry, and to some guy from a Web publication most in Spokane haven’t heard of? Not only did KHQ want to talk about it, they ran the segment in the second spot at the top of the evening newscast. To me, that’s a pretty clear indication that this is a town that’s taking innovation very seriously.

I have no idea whether the medical school will get funded, much less whether it will spawn more innovative products, companies, and jobs. But there’s certainly a strong will in the community to try to make it happen.

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  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/ltimmerman/ Luke Timmerman

    A couple important things to add to this story: The House budget included $35 million for the Spokane medical school project, while the Senate budget released yesterday includes $60 million. So while nothing’s final in the budget until it passes, there’s definitely some reason for optimism about this project in Spokane.

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