Seattle Jobs? Big Biotech Gives And Takes Away (Mostly The Latter)

7/29/14Follow @alexlash

Reporting a 25 percent jump in profits, Amgen (NASDAQ: AMGN) also dealt a blow to Seattle’s biotech job market today. The Thousand Oaks, CA-based biotech drug maker announced a huge round of job cuts, 12 to 15 percent of its staff worldwide, and a shuttering of research and manufacturing groups in Washington state and Colorado.

An Amgen spokesman told Xconomy its Seattle R&D site and Bothell manufacturing sites employed 660 people combined, with 430 more in Colorado. The facilities will be closed by the end of 2015.

Seattle’s biotech community has seen several companies enjoy success, only to be bought by bigger firms and whittled away. Meanwhile, another local biotech, Dendreon (NASDAQ: DNDN), once expected to become a local cornerstone, has stumbled badly in its efforts to build a major franchise in cancer immunotherapy.

When asked for his reaction to the Amgen news, Washington Biotechnology & Biomedical Association president and CEO Chris Rivera said, “In a word, disappointing.”

But Rivera adds he is optimistic that the employees who don’t relocate—Amgen said it would shift jobs to its Cambridge, MA, and San Francisco Bay Area locations—should be able to find jobs in Washington state if they want to.

There are rays of sunnier news for Seattle. The Gilead Sciences (NASDAQ: GILD) drug that received FDA approval last week, idelalisib, came from its $600 million acquisition of Calistoga Pharmaceuticals, a Seattle company, and Gilead has maintained a large presence in Seattle.

Another source of new jobs in the near future could be Celgene (NASDAQ: CELG) of Summit, NJ. The firm said last week it would open a cancer immunotherapy center in Seattle. But it’s unclear how many jobs it would create or when it would open. In fact, there were few details forthcoming. The news was tucked into Celgene’s second-quarter earnings report.

Celgene said Rob Hershberg would join the company to run the center. Hershberg is also the CEO of VentiRx, a Seattle immuno-oncology company. Celgene took an option to acquire VentiRx two years ago, as Xconomy reported here.

Hershberg’s new role with Celgene naturally raised questions about the status of Celgene’s relationship with VentiRx. But the privately held biotech remains an independent company, and Hershberg remains the CEO, according to company chairman Steve Gillis. Gillis led the VentiRx investment for Seattle’s ARCH Venture Partners. (Frazier Healthcare Ventures, Domain Associates, and MedImmune Ventures are its other top investors.)

Gillis said Hershberg will split his time between the new Celgene research center and VentiRx, which is running two large Phase 2 trials in head and neck and ovarian cancer with its lead drug candidate. Hershberg could not be reached for comment.

Celgene spokesman Brian Gill declined to comment on anything beyond what’s in the release. “It is what it is,” Gill said.

Seattle is a natural place for Celgene to open its center, which is officially called the “Celgene Immuno-Oncology Center of Excellence.” The Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center is an immunotherapy hub; two of its programs were incorporated last year into the new Seattle biotech Juno Therapeutics—also an ARCH investment.

The circles in Seattle can seem small. Celgene’s R&D chief, Tom Daniel, is an Immunex alumnus. When he was in Seattle a couple weeks ago, it was the first the WBBA’s Rivera had heard of the plans for the new R&D center.

And ARCH’s Gillis was a cofounder of Immunex, which grew to 1,600 employees at its peak and produced etanercept (Enbrel), the autoimmune disease-fighting drug that gained FDA approval in 1998 and ultimately led to Amgen’s acquisition of the company. It was bittersweet then: about 500 jobs were shed through the merger, and the attrition continued even as Amgen maintained the R&D group north of downtown.

My predecessor Luke Timmerman did a beautiful job recounting the Immunex story and its alumni network in a series of posts and events in 2011. Three years later comes the end of a long chapter.

Alex Lash is Xconomy's National Biotech Editor. He is based in San Francisco. Follow @alexlash

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  • NE-PNW VoorTrekker

    We all saw this coming but the Seattle biotech. market is now officially dead for the next two years, at least. I am luckily getting out of Amgen just in time but within a few years I will be shipping back up to Boston for any further career advancement. This state has no idea how to create a real biotech. (fuel, pharma, etc.) cluster.

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  • Dave

    This is a big loss. I highly doubt many of those who lost their jobs will be staying. It is a talented, highly educated, well compensated group of workers with valuable skills, but without ready opportunities in Seattle. Unfortunately, this will make the (already large) challenge of recruiting to Seattle for biotech even more difficult. A thin market is bad for people who relocate as they worry about what happens if their job goes away. Easier to stay in more liquid markets with greater opportunity like the Bay Area, Boston or even North Carolina.

    Seattle Genetics will get its pick of people as will the emerging biotechs like Acucela, Alder and others, but all those combined are barely equal in total employee count–much less researchers–to the total laid off.

    Once upon a time, Immunex was major league ICOS and Zymo were sizeable and growing, Dendreon and Seattle Genetics were very promising. Now Immunex, ICOS and Zymo are gone, Dendreon flamed out. Seattle Genetics is doing very well, has reached a critical mass with 500+ employees and could be a rocket ship if one or two more drugs are approved, but that will be a few years from now. Some promising things spinning out of the Hutch as well but we have lost the critical mass of talent needed to be a real hub of biotech.

  • Tim

    The author failed to note that CMC Biologics based in Bothell has been growing and added people as they have expanded their presence 3 fold since acquiring the former ICOS site from Lilly.