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Biotech boom: How life sciences emerged from ‘the doldrums’ in Seattle and Washington state

Leslie Alexandre has seen a lot from her perch surveying Washington state’s life sciences landscape. She is set to retire in at the end of this year after five years as president and CEO of the industry group Life Science Washington, a stretch coinciding with strong growth in the state’s maturing biotech sector.

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

The region had a long history of losing its biotech startups to bigger companies that acquired them and then shut or moved operations. When Alexandre arrived in Seattle, Thousand Oaks, Calif.-based Amgen had just shut its operations on the waterfront near Seattle’s downtown.

Some of the more than 600 employees there had stayed through Amgen’s acquisition of Seattle biotech flagship Immunex. Eventually, many of them dispersed throughout the numerous biotech companies that have since risen in the region. A lot has changed since 2016.

The state is riding a national biotech IPO wave, with five biotech companies entering the public markets in 2021, leading tech IPOs in deal volumes and total proceeds, according to a recent report from Ernst & Young. Sana Biotechnology raised $587 million in its IPO, Absci pulled in $200 million, and vaccine company Icosavax raised more than $180 million.

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

Not only is the startup ecosystem booming, established companies are staying in the region and growing, said Alexandre. The company founded as Seattle Genetics in 1997 is now Seagen, with a global presence and more than 1,700 employees. The company kept its headquarters in Bothell, Wash., built regional manufacturing capacity, and is expanding in the state.

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

“Now we have a greater pool of seasoned commercial talent, who have moved into the area, had success either with Juno or other companies, and are eager to do it again,” said Alexandre. “And they are attracting top talent with them,” including from other parts of the country.

Alexandre’s major concern is keeping the talent pool fresh and full. “We’re getting close to that worst possible stage, which is companies poaching from other companies,” she said.

She warns that regional leaders need to focus on talent development at all levels, from K-12 STEM education to research internships, to support regional biotech growth. “I think that we need to make sure that we’re keeping our eye on the ball, that we’re making the investments we need to in workforce.”

Life Science Washington has partnered with community colleges on programs that mesh with regional needs and initiated a campaign to help draw in hires from out of state, “Find Your Best Life in Washington.”

Alexandre notes that the Seattle area also has historical strengths in areas such as infectious diseases, virology and immunology. That positioned its scientists to rise to the challenge of virus surveillance and testing, as well as vaccine development, she said. “We have that infrastructure in place.”

The pandemic also led to growth of regional companies such as Adaptive Biotechnologies, which doubled its workforce during the pandemic as it supported vaccine development and built a COVID-19 test.

“COVID itself has absolutely lit a fire in our industry, locally, regionally, statewide, nationally, across the globe,” said Alexandre. She also points to Adaptive’s partnership with Microsoft as just one example of a Seattle-area biotech drawing on regional tech talent to support increasingly tech-heavy projects.

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

Life Science Washington is holding its annual Washington State Life Science Summit virtually this Thursday, Oct. 21.

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

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