In Seattle, Biotechnology Is On the Upswing

The biotech industry is booming. Some reservations notwithstanding, influxes of venture capital reflect economic robustness in the biotech market, and the recent pledge of funds for personalized (or "precision") medical research by the Obama administration reflect widespread public interest in the industry.

Amidst this upswing, many are still hesitant to call Seattle a biotech hub. This is for several reasons, one being that companies tend to come and go. This trend was recently punctuated by the departure of Amgen, which marked a significant blow to the local industry with 660 jobs lost. Another reason is the perceived lack of lateral mobility in the industry due to a dearth of local companies, at least compared to the likes of San Diego, San Francisco, and Boston.

But there are many signs that Seattle is, on the whole, investing more in biotech. South Lake Union (SLU) is a waterfront region nestled just north of downtown and west of Capitol Hill. It is a growing intellectual and industry center for not only biotech, but also internet tech firms including Amazon, Expedia, and Facebook. Biotech property specialists BioMed and Alexandria are national companies that manage biotech lab spaces in Seattle, and they are actively establishing new labs in SLU. The area is currently home to numerous key research institutes like Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Institute, Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, the Allen Institute for Brain Science, the Center for Infectious Disease Research, the Institute for Systems Biology, and others, all in close proximity. Nearby, an ambitious new nonprofit called the Altius Institute for Biomedical Sciences will open its doors near Pike Place Market later this year. The Institute will focus on gene regulation and its effects on cell function.  

This is to say nothing of the flow of venture capital into local companies and nonprofits. Citing the president of the Washington Biotechnology and Biomedical Association, Chris Rivera, the Seattle Times reports; "the total value of biotech financing, and merger and acquisition transactions statewide tracked by the trade group more than doubled [in 2014] to about $1.5 billion, and has already surpassed that in 2015." Several Seattle biotechs stand out among the rest. In 2014, Juno Therapeutics, which works on development of cancer immunotherapies, drew in roughly $314 million in private funds, and recently it was announced that $500 million from the governor's Strategic Reserve Fund was being contributed to its planned manufacturing plant in Bothell. This signifies the commitment of local government to maintain and grow its investment in the Seattle biotech industry. Adaptive Biotechnologies, which focuses on mapping immune responses to cancer, was valued at $500 million as of January 2015 and recently received $195 million in venture capital funding. Finally, the British pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline has funded the aforementioned nonprofit, Altius Institute, with $95 million. This is one of numerous examples of international investment in Seattle biotech.

So what are the prospects for a newcomer hoping to break into this exciting and growing field in Seattle? Investments in local industry are being translated into efforts to expand the biotech workforce, which will help to offset the impact of Amgen's departure. Juno Therapeutics alone has more than doubled in size from 60 to over 200 personnel in the last six months. Furthermore, researchers in basic science can take confidence in historical trends if they have aspirations to work in industry. The University of Washington and nonprofits near SLU regularly turn out a prodigious number of innovative technologies and therapies. Subsequently, researchers from these centers frequently form startups and spinoff ventures. Some especially notable examples: both Adaptive Biotechnologies and Juno Therapeutics originated from research conducted at the Fred Hutch Cancer Research Center; and the Altius Institute will be headed by a professor from the UW Department of Genome Sciences. 

In terms of what skills are in demand, Seattle biotechs are innovating in a vast array of fields, from cures for colorblindedness to cancer immunotherapy. At a recent forum held by Xconomy, the president of Fred Hutch, Gary Gilliland described the "coming 'tidal wave' of immunotherapeutic approaches to cancer treatment." Workers knowledgeable in these approaches will certainly have an upper hand in Seattle's industry climate.

Sean Maden

Shoreline Community College Biotechnology Lab Specialist Program

B.A. Biology


Learn More:

1. The Seattle Times: New Juno HQ, Altius debut are signs biotech industry is thriving in Seattle

2. The Seattle Times: Juno Therapeutics gets $500K grant from state fund

3. The Seattle Times: Two University of Washington researchers have partnered with a biotech firm on a possible cure for colorblindedness

4. The Seattle Times: Adaptive Biotechnologies raises $195 million in venture funding

5. Puget Sound Business Journal: These 4 companies are drawing hundreds of new biotech workers to Seattle

6. Xconomy: What Seattle Needs (Part 2): Dealing With Amgen’s Upcoming Departure

7. The New York Times: Riding High, Biotech Firms Remain Wary 

8. Xconomy: How Seattle Set Out to Create a Biotech Hub and Fostered a Global Health Nexus

9. FACT SHEET: President Obama’s Precision Medicine Initiative

10. Puget Sound Business Journal: Juno since the IPO: Ups and downs, but mostly ups

11. The Seattle Times: Robust venture-capital funding in state reaches pre-recession levels

12. Xconomy: Slideshow: Seattle Biotech Seizes the Momentum

13. Seattle Met: Taking the Pulse of Biotech

Submitted by Sean Maden on Fri May 22, 2015.

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