Building Biotech In Seattle

Aug 11th, 2007 | By | Category: South Lake Union

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.