How Seattle Set Out to Create a Biotech Hub and Fostered a Global Health Nexus

8/8/11

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infrastructure investments were beginning to come to fruition. The Vulcan vision for a neighborhood that included places to work, live, and gather was taking shape and the results were compelling. But perhaps more important to PATH was another element of the vision that was becoming a reality.

Throughout the arguments for the Commons and zoning changes, one core tenet was that collecting intelligent passionate people a neighborhood would generate an opportunity for Gestalt. And once a critical mass of organizations was in place, it became an important draw. But while collaboration had become a powerful attraction for cooperative global health organizations, it was a less effective at luring biotech companies. Their strongest ties are internal and their highest needs are for access to capital and a large enough local industry to attract experienced management.

This year, the Gates Foundation provided a third anchor tenant for the neighborhood, completing the perimeter formed by The Hutch on the east and PATH to the south. The Gates Foundation has been a tremendous accelerant to Seattle’s global health initiatives, but it is important to note that existing organizations probably had a stronger influence on the mission of the Gates Foundation than the other way around. Seattle BioMed and PATH both got started in the 1970s.

Our tour demonstrated how transformative the convergence of global health institutions has become. Vulcan gave us the tour of their diorama, and it was clear how much progress has been made and how the gravitational attraction is growing. The Washington Global Health Alliance described the breadth of expertise that resides in Seattle and how it contributes to the dynamism of the city. Their “Party With a Purpose” draws over 1,000 young people to raise awareness and money for global health projects.

PATH illustrated the deep experience and pragmatism that it requires to translate good ideas into successful products in developing countries. They draw on resources from case managers to machinists to deliver solutions that are deployable and scalable. Some of PATH’s most important innovations are in their ability to enable for-profit companies to deliver affordable, sustainable advances in healthcare.

A few blocks away, Seattle BioMed summed up the importance of proximity concisely. They described a scenario of collaborating with funders at the Gates Foundation on strategies for fighting malaria and then walking a few blocks to PATH to consider how to deliver it. Their example illustrated the power of place to bring together people with a shared goal and diversity of talent.

Their anecdote also demonstrated the realization of a vision. The Hutch came to South Lake Union for affordable land that would enable them to bring their research groups together. Today the institutions at South Lake Union think of the neighborhood itself as a global health campus. As one guide put it, “where else can you run into a world class scientist in line at Whole Foods and ask her for an opinion?”

From a historical standpoint the transformation of South Lake Union into a global health nexus was as accidental as the Denny Regrade. Hundreds of visionary people have worked for decades toward the idea that this city has the creativity, confidence, and now the resources to pioneer solutions to humanity’s most important problems. The fact that we are best at applying the generosity of benefactors to the problems of the developing world is somewhat unexpected and remarkably inspiring.

Don Rule is the founder of Translational Software, a company that aims to accelerate the process of bringing molecular diagnostics from the bench to the bedside. He previously worked at Microsoft for 14 years. Follow @

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  • Andy Sack

    Thanks for the insight! South Lake Union is growing and there are a lot of smart folks out here now. Lighter Capital is lucky to be surrounded by them, as we are located a couple blocks from Whole Foods. And very true – standing in line at Whole Foods you can spark up a conversation with a world class scientist!