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Microsoft President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith speaking at Life Science Innovation Northwest in Seattle. (GeekWire Photo / Chelsey Ballarte)

A life sciences conference isn’t the first place you’d expect to find Microsoft President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith.

But that’s precisely where he was Tuesday morning, and he had an important message for the life sciences industry: if it wants to scale up, it should look to our neighbors to the north.

Speaking at Life Science Innovation Northwest in downtown Seattle, Smith reiterated the points of the Cascadia Innovation Corridor initiative, a push for greater collaboration between Seattle and Vancouver, B.C., which are less than 150 miles apart.

Smith has been an avid proponent of the plan — even advocating for a high-speed rail line between the cities — and today he made the case for why the region’s life sciences industry should be a proponent, too.

“When you think about the various parts of the economy that are driving technology forward here in Puget Sound, it’s natural for somebody at Microsoft to think about cloud computing and information technology. But there are many important parts of this economy — life sciences is a vital part,” Smith told GeekWire after his talk.

“I think it’s another leg of the stool, together with IT and aerospace, that are helping to move this entire region forward.”

The Seattle region has a strong research legacy in life sciences research but has traditionally struggled to translate that research excellence into a strong industry presence.

The industry has pointed to changes in Washington state policy as one reason the sector has lost jobs in recent years, including the elimination of early-stage funding sources for life sciences startups.

“There have always been important challenges for the life sciences community in terms of getting funding and then growing and getting to mid-size and beyond. But it’s very dynamic, the research in this area of the country is quite impressive, and it’s quite remarkable when you see how many companies there are,” Smith said.

In his talk, Smith said increasing access to local venture capital is an important goal of developing the region, and that is one issue that increased collaboration between Seattle and Vancouver could address.

Another issue important to life sciences is increased collaboration between research and academic institutions in Seattle and Vancouver.

But Smith also said collaboration between life sciences and technology will also need to grow, across both industry and national lines.

“What one sees is that advances in life sciences are very much increasingly intertwined with advances in information technology,” Smith said. “We at Microsoft have an important role to play in providing the tools” that life sciences can use, including big data and artificial intelligence tools, he said.

Microsoft has taken on basic science and life sciences research in the past, but its research efforts have turned towards artificial intelligence and other technologies in the past years. The tech giant announced a new health initiative, called Health NExT, in February with a focus on developing tools to support innovation in the health arena.

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