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Chris Rivera of the WBBA interviews Dr. Gary Gilliland of the Fred Hutch. Both say that Seattle needs to bolster its biotech image.
Chris Rivera of the WBBA and Dr. Gary Gilliland of the Fred Hutch ssay that Seattle needs to bolster its biotech image.

Seattle is well known for making airplanes, coffee and software.

But when it comes to cutting-edge biotechnology and health services, the region doesn’t always get top billing. That point of frustration is something that WBBA president Chris Rivera is looking to change, and the topic emerged at the organization’s annual Life Science Innovation Northwest conference, taking place this week in Seattle.

Chris Rivera
Chris Rivera

“If we walk down on 1st and Pike here in Seattle and we asked 100 hundred people: Who makes airplanes, who makes coffee and and who makes software? The odds are probably pretty high that people are going to say Boeing, Starbucks and Microsoft,” said Rivera in his opening remarks at the annual conference. “If you asked who invented ultrasound, cardiac defibrillators, or where did the first bone marrow transplant occur, who invented Enbrel, the odds are very low —  I’d put money down — that very few would say the UW, Physio-Control, Fred Hutch Cancer Research Center and Immunex. That is why I say, we are one of the best kept secrets in the world. My job, and I think everybody’s job in this room if you are from the Northwest, is to come out and let people know around the world the great innovations that not only have occurred in this state and region, but continue to occur here as well.”

Rivera said that the biotechnology and life sciences industry in Washington state sometimes gets overshadowed, even though blockbuster deals are happening and groundbreaking innovations are occurring. Rivera noted that more than $2 billion in business development deals have occurred in the life sciences arena in Washington state so far this year, including the massive $1 billion investment made this week by Celgene in Seattle-based superstar Juno Therapeutics.

Seattle has suffered from a number of fits and starts in the biotech industry over the years, hampered by failures of high-profile companies such as Dendreon as well as the acquisitions of promising drug companies like ICOS and Immunex.

But there is a new momentum in the Seattle life sciences scene, propelled in part by the activities at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, The University of Washington and fast-moving upstarts like Juno. (Now valued at $5 billion). The arrival of new R&D operations from companies like GlaxoSmithKline, which last month announced plans for a new non-profit R&D facility called the Altius Institute for Biomedical Sciences to study “cell operating systems” also is adding to the promise.

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center president Dr. Gary Gilliland  speaks at the Life Science Innovation Northwest conference in Seattle.
Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center president Dr. Gary Gilliland speaks at the Life Science Innovation Northwest conference in Seattle.

Dr. Gary Gilliland, an East Coaster who was named president of the Fred Hutch last November, said that Seattle is a vibrant life sciences community that sometimes gets overshadowed.

“The West Coast tends to get left out of the media streams,” said Gilliland, adding that the community needs to do a better job of raising awareness. “One of my board members at the Hutch said that Hutch is the best kept secret in Seattle.  And, I am not sure if that is true, but we are working on that. But, more importantly, the life sciences shouldn’t be considered a well-kept secret, anymore.”

Rivera agreed that Seattle’s life science community simply needs to do a better job telling its story, one of the reasons why the non-profit trade organization plans to launch a marketing campaign in San Diego, San Francisco and Boston to build buzz. He said the goal is to let potential employees and companies know that Washington companies are hiring and “open for business.”

“If you are not from the area and you want to move to Seattle, the weather is always like this year round,” joked Rivera in making his best pitch.

Previously on GeekWire: Fred Hutch president says they’ve got cancer ‘running scared,’ predicts cure in 10 years

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