A Look Ahead for Washington State’s Life Sciences Cluster

11/16/11

This Friday the Washington Biotechnology & Biomedical Association (WBBA) will release findings from its 2010 Economic Impact Report at their Governor’s Life Sciences Summit and WBBA Annual Meeting. With the sometimes volatile ups and downs of our industry, these findings have the potential to propel WBBA forward in both current and new initiatives and strategies to build Washington state’s life sciences sector.

We know the life sciences industry has grown to be a significant part of Washington state’s economy. Even through tough economic times, we’ve seen employment numbers pass many of the traditional resource-based industries on which the state’s economy was founded. The life sciences industry is crucial not only because of its size, but also because of its potential for economic growth and improved health for individuals. As the trade association serving this industry in Washington, WBBA has been effective in supporting its members and companies as they work to translate innovation to realization. As I take over the reins as the next WBBA board chair, our goal will be to continue to advance the agenda that we have established thus far—to help all of our member organizations get access to additional financing to further their product development efforts.

Under Tom Clement and Chris Rivera’s leadership, the WBBA has done a good job of laying a solid foundation for establishing Washington state as a leader in the life sciences and in global health. We have one of the largest, most vibrant industry organizations in the country. However, in order for us to maintain our leadership role globally, we have to take a long-term approach by continuing to make investments in projects that have the potential to grow into bigger and more substantial development projects that benefit our healthcare ecosystem. This will require the help and support of all of our stakeholders—from WBBA members to our affiliate members, to local, state and federal elected officials, to patient advocacy groups, to healthcare providers and any other groups willing to join us. There is much to do in educating both the public and our elected officials so that they understand the long-term benefits of what our industry can provide in terms of hope and in terms of the life-saving healthcare solutions for patients and their families. Working together, we can develop sustainable policies that can be implemented now to support and grow our diverse life sciences sector.

Fundamentally we’ve come out of a pretty tough time. Right now, life science companies are facing substantial risks. The public markets haven’t recovered, and that lack of economic recovery spills down to companies in both the public and private sectors—impacting their ability to obtain the funding they need to advance their technology and product development efforts. The huge cuts in NIH and other federal funding sources have removed a much-needed vehicle for financing basic and early-stage scientific research, which often leads to some of the most important scientific breakthroughs directly benefitting our understanding of the way in which we might treat or address a particular human disease or condition. Locally, federal research dollars are one of the big drivers of economic development and job creation. Organizations such as the University of Washington, Washington State University, PATH, the Institute for Systems Biology, Seattle BioMed, Seattle Children’s Research Institute, Benaroya Research Institute, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and others, rely to a large degree on federal research funds to advance their discoveries—funds which help create jobs.

Yet despite these challenges, the WBBA has continued to grow. Today, we represent more than 450 member organizations and we span a broad range of companies and institutions, from the biopharmaceutical sector, to medical devices, to IT-based life sciences companies, to global health organizations, to research institutions, and a host of other entities that impact health care both in the creation of healthcare products and healthcare delivery here in the state. Our members further include those top-notch firms supporting our life sciences ecosystem, from law firms, to accounting firms, to suppliers, to builders, to architects and more. It’s imperative that WBBA continue to develop ways to help this sector to continue to grow, even in this challenging economic environment.

How can we do this? First, we will maintain and expand opportunities for our companies and research institutions to showcase their work and innovation. We will work hard to attract investors and companies (both public and private) to review and help increase the likelihood that our member organizations might receive the funding necessary to continue their research and product development efforts. As an example, our Venture Investment and Partnering (VIP) Forums are one way that we are doing this now. In 2011, more than 45 one-on-one meetings between local organizations and visiting VIPS took place. We plan to significantly build on this program (and will develop others) so that we can further assist our members.

We will strive to work with our colleagues on the legislative side advancing and advocating policies to help our member organizations advance their research and product development efforts forward in a positive way—both at the state the federal levels. The Washington state Legislature has begun this work by investing in two important programs supporting the life sciences.

In 2005, Governor Gregoire signed into law a bill establishing the Life Sciences Discovery Fund (LSDF), committing Washington to an economic development strategy with health and science at its core. LSDF investments are paying off and are being leveraged with further follow-on investment and support. First awards made in late 2007 have received more than $278 million in follow-on funding or commitments to date. And LSDF investments are already improving healthcare delivery and saving money: for example, nearly every hospital in Washington is participating in the SCOAP program funded by the LSDF, which is reducing surgical complications and readmissions. Over a three-year period, the program has generated at least $67 million in savings. LSDF grantees today are collaborating with more than 40 Washington companies to support product development and jobs.

In 2010, the state legislature established the Washington Global Health Fund to help accelerate the commercialization of global health technologies and to create jobs here in Washington State. This effort has already resulted in grants that will create local jobs and help several organizations to develop innovative global health products.

For us to succeed, it is important for us to foster an environment of collaboration, openness, and support for our life sciences industry. We must be creative about what we do, who we collaborate with, and what our priorities are to really figure out ways that we can grow the number of opportunities, companies, and technologies. I look forward to working closely with our members to support their efforts in translating innovation to realization, from breakthrough discoveries to better health solutions.

Thong Q. Le is a Managing Director at WRF Capital, the venture capital investment arm of Washington Research Foundation. Follow @

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