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Saturday, August 11, 2007

Building Biotech In Seattle

posted by on August 11 at 18:35 PM

Should Seattle be a center for biotech? “At South Lake Union, we are building a center of excellence in life sciences,” says the mayor. Vulcan has voraciously devoured tax and zoning breaks in the name of biotech in Seattle. Will it work?

Tremendous potential exists in Seattle. Last year the university pulled in over a billion dollars in highly competitive research grants—no minor feat in George W Bush’s America. Grants getting funded in a hyper-competitive environment, only the top 18% or so were funded last year, tells you Seattle is filled with talented and hard working scientists. No other public university does as well. Seattle is geographically isolated in just the right way—1700 miles from Minneapolis and 800 miles from San Francisco, but close enough to the other major hubs to get quick shipments in of reagents—to assure unusual ideas, novel ideas, and heretical ideas can take hold and provide protection against groupthink from the better integrated hubs of California or the East Coast.

Seattle’s real potential ace is the confluence of biotech and computer science talent—second only to the bay area. Thanks to new tools, biologists can generate huge volumes of data. Whoever better processes this mass of data, reaching petabytes nationwide, will lead the next era in biology. Call it systems biology, data mining, bio-informatics, whatever; any place doing it well will rule the field. Rightfully, Seattle should be leading this field. We probably won’t.

So, how are we messing it up?

The train goes the wrong way. The choo-choo to Westlake center is fantastic for the septagenerians burning off Microsoft shares to purchase million dollar condos. As a biotech worker in the new “biotech hub” of Seattle, I need to go to the University—to sequence DNA, to copy older journal articles, to attend seminars. I eat lunch at my desk.

South Lake Union was my first home first home in Seattle. Now, for someone actually working in biotech, the paycheck no longer matches the rent. Could we at least get some decent transit service from more affordable neighborhoods?

The neighborhood is seriously lacking quiet study space—places to write, to think and to be productive. Same story for support businesses—like DNA sequencing or oligo synthesis companies. Eventually, mail order won’t cut it. Likewise, where is the incubator lab space for biotech start-ups? Paul, have you forgotten that Microsoft really started not in Redmond, but a cheap motel in Albuquerque? Without affordable, pre-assembled and well-supported research space, no new biotech companies will spring forth from the academic labs. Maybe Seattle is the wrong place; Tacoma might be just right. A proper regional transit plan -- Sounder operating more than twice a day, more like MARC or Metra -- would help by connecting the ideas generated at the University with cheap lab space for startups.

So, consider me dubious. Vulcan seems more interested in selling condos to wealthy retirees, the city more interested in the illusion of progress. The region is busy playing anti-Seattle wedge politics, the Governor late to the table with the Life Sciences Discovery Fund.

Prepare for a huge opportunity to be blown.


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You are forgetting Seattle's best asset: lots of homeless people that can be easily dispatched and harvested for their organs. And you are ignoring the isolation of S Lake Union itself, which is the perfect place for hiding the electrical discharges that we all know (from Hollywood) are the stock and trade of the mad scientist.
The streets of South Lake Union will run red with blood of the homeless (and the blood of cyclists doing face plants because of the obnoxious new rails for the streetcar no one will ride).

Posted by kinaidos | August 11, 2007 7:42 PM

SLU has plenty of fine options for study, reflection, and dining. I recommend Moka's (Mozzarella Madness, or any of the salads are excellent brainfood), Slo-Joes (spicy mac&cheese, don't forget the sriracha), or that weird Cinnamon's place where they serve pretty good curry at good prices. Or that Indian place on Fairview: Laadli? or Laadla? PLUS. Let us not forget that Russian spa Banya 5 graces SLU with its presence. A salt scrub and cold water plunge will aid any biotech brainstorm, any day.

I took the bus between the UD and South Lake Union twice a night for years... It's a straight shot on the 71, 72, or 73. Metro's fine. Let's not get snobby.

Posted by Katelyn | August 11, 2007 8:04 PM

Oh damn, I forgot to mention the WHORES! They are everywhere down there! And most poor biotech employees just love a good cheap prostitute. Huge draw

Posted by Katelyn | August 11, 2007 8:11 PM

Biotech is such a BS industry... firms looking for tax breaks convince cities that they're the first breaker in a long series of biotech waves when most cities that "get biotech" only see one or two firms and then that's that.

Posted by Alex-jon | August 11, 2007 10:16 PM

Crickey, how far is SLU from the UW, like a mile and a half? It's basically the closest area in downtown Seattle to the U., and its rents are relatively cheaper than other downtown rents, and it's where Fred Hutch is located. Hence, though it may not be perfect, it's as good as any big city is going to get. What is the point of this piece of handwringing? Yes, a glorious future full of easy biotech riches is not guaranteed. So what? It's not guaranteed anywhere. But it's still a very good bet here.

Posted by croydonfacelift | August 11, 2007 11:24 PM

"Prepare for a huge opportunity to be blown."
Like deciding to return my ex's phone call. Like waving at Mark Finley. I got a million of 'em...

Posted by tomasyalba | August 12, 2007 1:14 AM

Um we are building the transit link to UW. Its called Link light rail and when its done you'll be able to go from Westlake to UW and if ST2 passes a lot farther. That street car the Stranger likes to deride goes form SLU to, wait for it, Westlake.

As for the whole where will biotech start, the answer is the same place it always has. Just because SLU becomes home to more established biotech it won't mean that biotech can't get going in more affordable parts of the city.

My hunch is that if most of you had your way nothing would ever get built in this city, no business would be wooed, and we would build no transit infrastructure if it in anyways benefits private land owners. Sorry but a lot of us want a vibrant downtown with big buildings, revenue and job generating businesses, and transit.

Posted by Giffy | August 12, 2007 7:35 AM

Let's start off with a few things. If you want intelligent pieces of information, you shouldn't read the original posts of any of the Stranger writers. Read the comments... much more intelligent, witty, and correct.

The Street Car is paid for by the city and the homeowner's that benefit from it's usage. The Streetcar's plans are to run to UW in Phase II of the project. The Street Car is so hated that nearly every neighborhood in Seattle is trying to figure out how they can build one in their area. Yes, a bad, bad thing it is.

The hub of biotech is probably in South Lake Union, but let's not forget that biotech companies want biotech employee's... and the more biotech employees there are in Seattle, the more Biotech companies we will have in Seattle. Amgen is expanding and hiring. UW Medicine is hiring and expanding (in South Lake Union). Not to mention Leroy Hood's organization... And yes, these companies do nothing. Zymogenetics is in trials for a powder that will stop bleeding instantly (perfect for surgeries) and is cohuts to create a bandaid that would stop the injury's progression as soon as you put it on. Amgen continues to come out with new and better drugs for the world to live longer. Yes, they are useless. Useless.

I went to South Lake Union's block party on Friday... probably the best party I have been to as far as neighborhoods go. Cheap food, great entertainment, lots of fun and exciting booths and of course, people. People from all over longing to live in a neighborhood downtown that is Green, walkable to all that the city holds, doesn't require 2 hours of siting in your car and cussing at traffic, and relatively priced. I bought a condo in South Lake Union for $245k... a lot cheaper than some of the studios I looked at in Belltown or lower Queen Anne and in a neighborhood that I know will be up and coming. A neighborhood that will continue to grow under an umbrella of positive change. I know that in Belltown and Lower Queen Anne, developers build based on profit. I know that if the profit isn't at what, 30%... they won't build it... and I know that they don't care if they build it and it doesn't fit into the community.

I don't think that's happening at South Lake Union. But then again... I am just someone that thinks a bit ahead... maybe wrong, maybe right, I bet my money that I am on the right side.

Posted by Julian | August 12, 2007 11:27 AM

So, let's say I woke up this morning with a great idea to deal with three critical problems in embryonic stem cell therapies with one tidy little trick.

Could I found a company in Lake Union? In Seattle? In the region? Finding a vacant warehouse, sweeping out the rats and installing some desks won’t cut it. Like any biotech start-up, I’ll need lab space, with specialized equipment, air handling and utility support. Some fee-for-service cores, for things like DNA sequencing or animal handling, are essential. So is access to a proper academic library—remember, most journal articles are subscription only.

Very little of the built or planned lab space in Lake Union is set up like this. The “biotech incubator” facilities on Eastlake—not technically in SLU—are woefully inadequate. Nor are the support services in the pipeline. Without some far better developed incubator space for start-ups, the neighborhood will fail as a biotech hub. Period.

UW is already the largest single employer in the city. Do you honestly think the most talented faculty will stick around without the ability to start companies and fully develop ideas? This isn’t a matter of real-estate or making a lovely neighborhood of near-downtown housing. This should be about economic development.

Think I’m just being a whiner? Check out New York City’s biotech plan. That is serious, and likely to succeed despite serious disadvantages relative to Seattle. Ours is a joke in comparison.

Posted by Jonathan Golob | August 12, 2007 5:33 PM


Just like with building mass transportation "round here", the city and state will never do anything that requires vision and massive investment. As per usual, they'll say it costs too much and the status quo is perfectly fine.

That being said Jonathan, how about Bothell? There are quite a few small and medium sized biotech companies out there, but the drive back to seattle is pure traffic hell.

Posted by neo-realist | August 12, 2007 8:16 PM

Poor transit options, expensive rents, and lack of quiet study spaces? These are problems for UW students, not biotech companies. There is plenty of lab space and VC; the limiting factor is good ideas for companies. And while UW folks are indeed good at generating basic research ideas that the NIH likes to fund, that doesn't mean they're coming up with a lot of practical/marketable ideas that would draw VC.

Posted by CG | August 13, 2007 9:17 AM

A mostly point-by-point commentary and rebuttal to the often ridiculous, hysterical and pointless lamentations and knee-jerk anti-wealthly-investor snifflings of Jonathan Golob:

It is true that the University of Washington has recently been awarded more publicly funded research support (from the NIH, NSF, DOD, etc.) than any other public university. Private universities, particularly Harvard, Stanford, Yale, Johns Hopkins, Duke, Washington University in St. Louis and others, pull in similar if not greater amounts of federal research support. Notably, these private universities and many similarly competitive public ones lie within or close to other major established biotech hubs in the U.S.: Boston, New York, the Bay Area, N.C.’s research triangle. Seattle already has a lot of very well-established (and nascent) competition. Developing Seattle’s biotech community will thus continue to require significant investment and support to recruit scientists, NIH funding, venture capital, etc. in the face of such national (and, increasingly, international) competition. Even Seattle’s “talented and hard working” scientists are feeling the pinch of the relative decline in our federal government’s non-terrorism, non-defense-related research spending in the past seven years. Nothing is assured, and prior greatness in this field, while definitely important, is no guarantee for future success. Investment and redevelopment, particularly in an under-developed (and SLU was definitely that) urban environment, creates a desirable space in which potential biotech employees will want to work. Some of them may choose to live there or in close neighborhoods as well. Not all of us want to live and work in Bothell and, Jonathan’s salary-related complaints aside, we can still afford to live in Seattle as well. The cost of living is high here, yes, but riding a bike to work and not sitting in endless miles of traffic twice a day offset higher property values any day of the week.

Geographical distance in the biotech world also means precisely SQUAT. Everyone in this business reads papers from other research groups in their area of interest from around the world. Those same research groups are, by and large, the same people reading, reviewing and APPROVING grant applications and research papers submitted by scientists in Seattle. The global interconnectedness of modern scientific progress and research reporting means that actual geographical location is a decreasingly important factor in the genesis or support for ideas. Furthermore, a majority of the scientists living and working in Seattle have probably arrived here after receiving training and/or education somewhere else. Seattle’s geographic location and global connections thus results, I would argue, in the exact opposite: a blending of ideas, skills and interests originating from throughout the U.S. and the rest of the world, particularly the research powerhouses of East Asia and Europe. People come here to work and stay here because it is such a great place to live. People here get papers published and research grants funded because they convince people elsewhere that they are performing meaningful work on interesting projects. That very frequently means cowtowing to the “groupthink” that is in fact so pervasive and largely unavoidable in U.S. science, no matter how much the rest of us might disagree with it.

Mining data is one thing, doing anything productive with it is another. Rosetta Genomics is actually addressing this question productively and was so successful it was recently purchased by Merck. The Allen Brain Institute is likewise successfully developing (as a non-profit! Aghast!) a comprehensive gene expression atlas for the mammalian brain that represents a very important resource for the research and medical communities. Companies in this town have been very successful at data mining. The Institute for Systems Biology exists here, over on the north side of Lake Union. Seattle is part of the success story for this field. Failures in the application of bioinformatic approaches to drug development and other human health and disease applications are systematic, reflecting the gold rush mentality of (largely) non-scientist business people who, following the release of the first complete human genome sequence, stampeded any and all gene sequences in which their companies were interested straight to the patent office without first knowing whether those DNA sequences actually encoded anything useful. Now that that boom has largely bust, the rest of us can get back to work pursuing the next generation of medicine, including “rational” or tailored drug design. The age of the blockbuster drug may be over, but the beginning of individualistic medicine is only beginning and Seattle can be at the forefront of this effort.

Anyone who lives and works in South Lake Union must, by now, have developed at best a love/hate relationship with the trolley. Construction has been a serious pain in the ass and makes biking to or from work a hazardous adventure, but I just can’t complain about an alternative form of transportation that will allow me to get from my office at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center to downtown in just a few minutes (assuming I don’t just want to ride my bike). I won’t, for example, have to share the bus with whomever is riding the #70, which anyone familiar with Metro tales will appreciate can be “interesting,” to say the least. That said, I don’t know why Seattle as a community hasn’t started making more noise about expanding the service further and more quickly. I would love to hop on the trolley and be in Fremont or the U district in just a few minutes, too. Why don’t we work to make alternative transportation choices a possibility rather than simply disparage them because of their limitations and/or potential clientele?

As to housing and transportation: one could lobby our city government more vocally for adequate rental space, given that so many rental units are being turned into condos and so few of the new living spaces being built these days are dedicated to rentals. It’s supply and demand, people. If there is no demand, there will be no supply. Right now, there is apparently great demand for urban condos and townhomes. I don’t know who all the people are that are supposed to be buying these properties, especially for the prices they’re asking, but eventually the market will saturate and correct itself. In the meantime, the city ought to be doing more to maintain cheaper rental housing if this community is truly being underserved.

Any decent biotech company should have quiet spaces to work in. You don’t work at the Animal House Biotech, do you? If you don’t have your own office, as I don’t, you can always go to a library (the Hutch has a pretty quiet one, you don’t have to go all the way to the UW), or a coffee shop, or just simply stay at home to write, as I sometimes do. However, as an employee and a professional scientist, I would expect that you would develop working methods and habits that allow you to write, think and be productive at your desk, where you can have access to the things you ought to be writing and thinking about (i.e. your bench science) and where your colleagues can have access to you and your expertise. If you’re constantly off seeking solitude for peaceful reflection I would argue you’re not being professional. On the whole, I’d have to add that SLU is among the quietest neighborhoods in the city, provided the floatplanes taking off don’t distract you.

On the subject of reagents, oligos arrive just a few days after you order them, as they do anywhere one doesn’t have an in-house machine. It’s significantly cheaper and more reliable to get them from outside suppliers these days. DNA sequencing takes a little longer, but what decent biotech company doesn’t have at least one DNA sequencer in-house? They’re not that expensive to operate and maintain. Staffing is probably more expensive, and if you know how to run the machine yourself you can do without a designated technician to run the machine.

As far as incubator space is concerned, they do exist and include 1616 Eastlake, which you have seen fit to disparage, as well as a few spaces on Thomas St. in SLU. These places exist and more of them are being built in Seattle as well as in Bothel, another nascent local biotech hub. Tacoma seems a terrible idea simply because it’s even FURTHER away from the resources and other critical mass of biomedical research knowledge here in Seattle that you have deemed so necessary for success. I do agree, though, that the Sounder needs to have far better service throughout the area. Running in both directions (and faster than 25mph through urban areas) all hours of the day would be a great addition to another wise mystifyingly bad and unidirectional service schedule. The Sounder as it currently stands represents yet another Seattle-area head-up-own-ass transportation network that just doesn’t make the grade for convenient, comprehensive and rapid mass transit.

Vulcan as an organization is not a scientific enterprise. It’s essentially a real-estate company. They’re not responsible for developing the ideas that go into creating a start-up biotech company and they’re not even responsible for creating the space. They’ve simply been doing so in an effort to support an industry that will help further diversify Seattle’s economy and educated community. Of course, they do so because they see a profit to be reaped from such development. However, even a company with the backing of Vulcan can’t carry the entire weight of this responsibility alone, particularly when the national research funding that supports the vast majority of scientific research at institutions such as UW has been dwindling (and with it, ideas or research that could be spun off into biotech). Make no mistake, the success of UW in garnering research funding does not mean we haven’t felt the pinch here in Seattle, because we have. The success or failure of Seattle’s biotech community doesn’t rest on the amount of research space Vulcan builds or the distance the SLU trolley will run. Nor, for that matter, does it rest with our current Governor, unimpressive as she may often be. The genesis of the LSDF can be traced back to the tobacco settlements and, at least so far as WA state legislation is concerned, to 2003-2004’s legislative sessions preceeding the last elections.

Posted by Pomme Fritz | August 13, 2007 1:26 PM

@12: Agreed with everything above except for "the national research funding that supports the vast majority of scientific research at institutions such as UW has been dwindling." The NIH funds more research than ever before. Yes, the funding rate for individual grants has dropped significantly, but (1) the number of applications has gone way up because of new/expanding departments and institutes, and (2) the NIH is directing new funding to "centers of excellence" and other huge grants that cover dozens of scientists.

Posted by CG | August 13, 2007 3:34 PM

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