How Life Sciences Emerged From The Doldrums In Seattle – Leslie Alexandre has seen a lot while surveying the life sciences landscape in Washington state. She is set to retire at the end of this year after serving as president and CEO of the industry group Life Science Washington for five years, during which time the state’s maturing biotech sector experienced strong growth.
“I think we’re in a wonderful place, a much stronger and more cohesive community,” said Alexandre, who spoke with Tech News’ Health Tech Podcast about the past and future of biotech and life sciences in the Pacific Northwest. “In 2016, our industry was a little bit in the doldrums.”
The region has a long history of losing biotech startups to larger corporations that acquire them and then close or relocate their operations. When Alexandre arrived in Seattle, Amgen, based in Thousand Oaks, California, had just closed its operations on the waterfront near Seattle’s downtown.
Some of the more than 600 employees remained following Amgen’s acquisition of Seattle biotech leader Immunex. Many of them eventually dispersed among the numerous biotech firms that have sprung up in the region. Since 2016, a lot has changed. [How Life Sciences Emerged From The Doldrums In Seattle]
According to a recent Ernst & Young report, the state is riding a national biotech IPO wave, with five biotech companies going public in 2021, leading tech IPOs in deal volumes and total proceeds. Sana Biotechnology raised $587 million in its initial public offering (IPO), Absci raised $200 million, and vaccine company Icosavax raised more than $180 million.
According to Alexandre, Seattle was named the top “emerging” biotech market in 2019 by commercial real estate firm CBRE. And, according to Alexandre, it has long been known as a “incredible research cluster,” with institutions such as the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the University of Washington.
Not only is the startup ecosystem thriving, but established companies are staying and expanding in the region, according to Alexandre. Seagen, which was founded in 1997 as Seattle Genetics, now has a global presence and over 1,700 employees. The company retained its headquarters in Bothell, Washington, expanded regional manufacturing capacity, and is expanding in the state. [How Life Sciences Emerged From The Doldrums In Seattle]
Other operations have remained in-country following acquisitions. Alexandre cited the $9 billion acquisition of Juno Therapeutics by Celgene in 2018. Bristol-Myers Squibb later purchased Celgene and is “growing like wildfire in our region,” she said.
“We now have a larger pool of seasoned commercial talent who have moved into the area, had success with Juno or other companies, and are eager to do it again,” Alexandre said. “And they’re bringing in top talent,” including from other parts of the country.
Alexandre’s top priority is to keep the talent pool fresh and full. “We’re approaching the worst-case scenario, which is companies poaching from other companies,” she said. [How Life Sciences Emerged From The Doldrums In Seattle]
To support regional biotech growth, she warns that regional leaders must focus on talent development at all levels, from K-12 STEM education to research internships. “I believe we need to ensure that we keep our eye on the ball and make the necessary workforce investments.”
Life Science Washington has collaborated with community colleges on programmes that meet regional needs and launched a campaign to attract out-of-state hires called “Find Your Best Life in Washington.”
Alexandre also mentions the Seattle area’s historical strengths in infectious diseases, virology, and immunology. This enabled its scientists to meet the challenges of virus surveillance and testing, as well as vaccine development, she explained. “That infrastructure is in place.” [How Life Sciences Emerged From The Doldrums In Seattle]
The pandemic also led to the expansion of regional businesses such as Adaptive Biotechnologies, which more than doubled its workforce during the pandemic while supporting vaccine development and developing a COVID-19 test.
“COVID has absolutely lit a fire in our industry, locally, regionally, statewide, nationally, and globally,” Alexandre said. She also cites Adaptive’s collaboration with Microsoft as an example of a Seattle-area biotech leveraging regional tech talent to support increasingly tech-heavy projects.
“I think we’re firmly ensconced,” Alexandre said of the Pacific Northwest’s biotech scene. She is getting ready to return to North Carolina, where she was previously the CEO of the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, a life sciences economic development organisation. “I don’t think we’re going backwards,” she added. [How Life Sciences Emerged From The Doldrums In Seattle]
This Thursday, Oct. 21, Life Science Washington will hold its annual Washington State Life Science Summit virtually.