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

8/8/11

I recently organized a MOHAI walking tour of South Lake Union to begin to explore the roots of the museum’s new neighborhood. My original intent was to explain the importance of South Lake Union as a biotech hub but a different theme emerged in the course of my research. It is true that Seattle has some success attracting biotech organizations to the city, and the prospects for our region are promising, but not stellar. Where our city, and the South Lake Union neighborhood in particular are “punching above our weight” is in our contribution to global health.

The most important asset for the city has been the University of Washington, which generates the intellectual feedstock that might foster either biotech or global health. Beginning in the 1960s, the school transformed itself from general education university to a formidable research institution. While the conventional wisdom is that Warren Magnuson funneled money to the school when he was head of the Senate appropriations committee, Lee Huntsman makes the distinction that Magnuson championed the growth in the National Institutes of Health and then informed the UW of what they had to do to compete for those funds. Needless to say, they learned to compete very effectively. UW is consistently among the top recipients of NIH funding.

The relative significance of global health may say more about our culture than our competence. While the UW is adept at winning grant money, it is less well known for launching companies. The saying is that “if you work at Stanford and get an idea, you call a VC. If you work at UW, you write a paper.”

Still, biotech is an attractive economic engine and the idea that biotech should congregate in South Lake Union goes back as far as 1985, according to The Seattle Times. But there is no evidence that when the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (the Hutch) moved to Fairview Avenue in 1994 they were influenced by the potential for the neighborhood. Most important to them was finding a site that was large enough and inexpensive enough to bring together their research groups. Likewise, when ZymoGenetics moved to the city’s former Steam Plant that same year (the “mother of all fixer-uppers”) it was for flexible space at a low price.

But by the time of the debate over the Commons project in 1995, Paul Allen envisioned the park surrounded by a collection of high-tech and biotech companies. After the failure of two referenda, Allen’s Vulcan Inc. redoubled its efforts to attract biotech facilities and it seemed logical to funnel software profits into the next big knowledge industry. It wasn’t until 2002 that the movement of Merck’s Rosetta Inpharmatics to Terry Avenue provided some validation for the skeptics.

In 2003 the city actively encouraged biotech by altering zoning regulations to allow for the higher ceilings and extra rooftop equipment necessary for laboratories. Yet in 2004, when Seattle BioMed moved to South Lake Union, the community was still less than alluring for many employees. The lingering decay and lack of lunch alternatives made the neighborhood unappealing.

But by the time that PATH was moving from Ballard in 2010, the neighborhood had reached a tipping point. The change was in part because 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!