Biotech Boom: How the Life Sciences emerged from the Seattle and Washington doldrums

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Leslie Alexandre, President and CEO of Life Science Washington. (Life Sciences Washington Photo)

Leslie Alexandre saw much of their place as he explored the life sciences landscape of Washington state. After five years as President and CEO of the industrial group, she will retire at the end of this year Life Science Washington, a stretch that coincides with strong growth in the state’s maturing biotech sector.

“I think we are in a wonderful place, a much stronger and more cohesive community,” said Alexandre, who spoke for GeekWire’s Health Tech Podcast on the past and future of biotechnology and life sciences in the Pacific Northwest. “Our industry was somewhat in the doldrums in 2016.”

The region had a long history of losing its biotech startups to larger companies that took them over and then went out of business or relocated. When Alexandre arrived in Seattle, Thousand Oaks, California, Amgen had just shut down on the waterfront near downtown Seattle.

Some of the more than 600 employees stayed there when Amgen took over the biotech flagship Immunex in Seattle. Eventually, many of them split across the numerous biotech companies that have since risen in the region. A lot has changed since 2016.

Similarly: Absci’s IPO reflects the booming biotech market and the growing PNW life science industry

The state is riding a national biotech IPO wave with five biotech companies entering public markets in 2021 and according to a. lead tech IPOs in terms of transaction volume and total revenues current report by Ernst & Young. Sana Biotechnology raised $ 587 million on its IPO, Absci raised $ 200 million, and vaccine company Icosavax raised more than $ 180 million.

In 2019, Seattle was named an “emerging” biotech market by commercial real estate company CBRE, noted Alexandre. And it has long been known as an “incredible research cluster,” said Alexandre, with strong institutions like the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the University of Washington.

Not only is the startup ecosystem booming, established companies stay in the region and grow, said Alexandre. Founded in 1997 as Seattle Genetics, the company is now Seagen with a global presence and more than 1,700 employees. The company kept its headquarters in Bothell, Washington, built regional manufacturing capacity and expanded in the state.

Other operations have remained local after acquisitions. Alexandre referred to Juno Therapeutics, which was acquired by Celgene for $ 9 billion in 2018. Pharmaceutical giant Bristol-Myers Squibb later bought Celgene and “is growing like wildfire in our area,” she said.

“Now we have a larger pool of seasoned business talent who have moved to the area, have been successful with either Juno or other companies and are happy to do it again,” said Alexandre. “And they attract top talent”, also from other parts of the country.

Absci CEO and Founder Sean McClain will ring the closing bell on NASDAQ Thursday when the Vancouver, Washington-based biotech company went public. (Absci photo)

Alexandre’s main concern is to keep the talent pool fresh and full. “We are nearing the worst possible stage, which is poaching companies from other companies,” she said.

She warns that regional leaders need to focus on talent development at all levels, from K-12 STEM training to research internships, to support regional biotech growth. “I think we need to make sure we keep an eye on the ball and make the necessary investments in the workforce.”

Life Science Washington has partnered with community colleges on programs that meet regional needs and launched a campaign to attract new employees from other states, “Find Your Best Life in Washington.”

Related: “We Were Instrumented”: How Seattle Became a Center for COVID-19 Vaccine Research

Alexandre notes that the Seattle area also has historical strengths in areas such as infectious diseases, virology, and immunology. This has enabled its scientists to face the challenge of virus monitoring and testing, as well as vaccine development, she said. “We have this infrastructure.”

The pandemic also led to the growth of regional companies like Adaptive Biotechnologies, which doubled their workforce during the pandemic as they supported vaccine development and set up a COVID-19 test.

“COVID itself has absolutely lit a fire in our industry, locally, regionally, nationwide, nationally, around the world,” said Alexandre. She also cites Adaptive’s partnership with Microsoft as just one example of a Seattle area biotech using regional tech talent to support increasingly technology-intensive projects.

“I think we are firmly anchored,” said Alexandre of the Pacific Northwest biotech scene. She is preparing to return to North Carolina, where she once served as CEO of the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, an economic development organization in the life sciences. She added, “I don’t think we’re going backwards.”

Life Science Washington is Hold its annual Washington State Life Science Summit practically this Thursday October 21st.

Listen to our conversation with Alexandre above or subscribe to GeekWire’s Health Tech Podcast on any podcast app.


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