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Wednesday, October 20, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
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Plan to foster state's biotech is amended

By Luke Timmerman
Seattle Times business reporter

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Washington business and politics leaders are taking another shot at crafting a state biotechnology growth strategy, this time with a more detailed plan and less money behind it.

In the revised Bio21 plan, being presented this week to a meeting of regional leaders in Vancouver, B.C., backers call for the state to set up a $450 million pool of public and private money to strengthen the region's biological research over 13 years. The amount is less than the $500 million-plus, 15-year plan first proposed in January, which stalled in the Legislature.

The new plan's goals are similar — to raise the region's profile as a top cluster of biomedical research, to advance human health with predictive and preventive medicine, and to create more emerging companies in the state.

The proposal was requested by Gov. Gary Locke last year, and was written with input from some of the state's influential research leaders, including Lee Hartwell of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Leroy Hood of the Institute for Systems Biology and Paul Ramsey of the University of Washington. It also involved state legislative leaders, including Republicans Luke Esser and Skip Priest, and Democrats Lisa Brown and Helen Sommers.

According to a summary of the plan, Bio21 would:

• Establish a Strategic Trust Fund to dole out competitive grants to research institutions and their partners. The fund would be overseen by seven prominent scientists appointed by the governor and approved by the Legislature.

• Receive most of its money, $350 million, from a portion of the state's tobacco settlement, which starts flowing in 2008. The money represents a bonus the state was given for leading the tobacco litigation, and will not divert settlement money earmarked for public health, backers say. Another $100 million is being sought from private sources, but no commitments have been announced yet.

• Generate up to a projected $900 million in matching dollars as intriguing scientific results from the locally funded research attract funds from the federal government and other sources.

• Direct its grants to investments in key facilities and equipment, encouraging collaboration between research centers and recruiting and retaining top scientists. Funding would focus on translating research into new drugs and diagnostics, medical devices and imaging, and software used in medical settings.

Before the plan can become reality, its backers hope a newly elected governor will work with the Legislature to pass it into law and implement it next spring. It also calls for the newly elected attorney general to work with the governor to craft a legal framework for the program that doesn't violate the state Constitution's prohibition on direct aid to businesses, said an organizer of the effort, Susannah Malarkey, executive director of the Technology Alliance.
 
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An economic report done by Battelle for the backers of Bio21 estimates that if the plan is implemented, Bio21 will create 20,000 new jobs and 100 new companies, and attract 50 other companies to Washington.

"Before, this was a big idea, a vision, and now it's an implementable plan," Malarkey said.

Ruth Scott, president of the Washington Biotechnology and Biomedical Association, said she has not seen a final version yet, and the trade group has not taken a position.

But she said Washington needs a comprehensive biotech growth strategy that includes strengthening research institutions, combined with improving technology transfer from academia to industry, better access to seed capital for startups, and a business-friendly political environment.

"Bio21 is a piece of that strategy, but only a piece," Scott said. "We need to look at the whole picture, rather than looking at it piecemeal."

Luke Timmerman: 206-515-5644 or ltimmerman@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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