Despite recession, Seattle’s biotech industry growing
Getting the policy right will be an important part of whether we continue to keep a substantial bio cluster. States with the biggest footprints in life sciences and biotech employ a variety of incentives.
Special to The Seattle Times
Remember “burn rate” — that evocative term from the dot-com spree? It is one of the problems dragging down Dendreon, once a highly promising biotech company for Seattle.
Dendreon has scorched through a huge amount of capital to bring its prostate-cancer drug Provenge to market. But analysts polled by Bloomberg expect sales to fall far short of expectations.
Not only that, but Dendreon is facing repayment of $546 million in convertible bonds in January 2016. It already has the highest debt-to-equity ratio in the biotechnology industry.
No wonder it was reported last week that Dendreon has engaged JPMorgan Chase to find a buyer. Given its challenges, that may be no easy task. Still, Provenge could be a prize for a big pharma buyer.
While Dendreon’s future appears at risk, Immune Design last week won $32.5 million in third-round financing from investors. This will enable the Seattle company to take two cancer-fighting, immune-based therapies to clinical trials.
“Good news, bad news is the nature of our industry,” said Chris Rivera, president and CEO of the Washington Biotechnology & Biomedical Association, the industry’s primary trade group here. “Overall, compared nationally, we’re on a very good trajectory.”
The association’s annual report shows 10 percent job growth in life sciences statewide from 2007 to 2012. By that measure, the sector came through the recession well. It claims direct employment of 34,000, an $11.1 billion contribution to state gross domestic product and much higher average wages.
The biosciences world has changed so much that the Puget Sound region may never again see the creation and flowering of an Immunex, which was acquired 11 years ago. Investors are pickier and less patient. Development costs have skyrocketed. The market has matured, at least in the United States. Consolidation is roaring forward.
We are blessed with some world-class assets: the University of Washington, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the Allen Institute for Brain Science. The global-health program is a major initiative of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Seattle Genetics and Gilead Sciences are thriving.
Also, we have a strong startup culture, with talent and the ability to raise capital. The association says it has advised 230 firms since 2009. Some 66 percent were emerging companies and 61 percent had developed intellectual property in-house.
Since January, the sector has seen more than 60 transactions, totaling $600 million in acquisitions, partnerships and funding.
Private-sector giants also bolster the cluster here. Amgen kept Immunex’s headquarters on Elliott Bay and employs about 800. Others include Bristol-Myers Squibb, which acquired ZymoGenetics in 2010, Novo Nordisk and GlaxoSmithKline.
Overall, the state hosts some 191 bio-pharma companies, 294 medical-device firms and 78 nonprofit-research institutions.
But in this tougher environment, are we rising, falling or holding our own?
I share the frustration of Xconomy’s Luke Timmerman over the lack of a gold-standard ranking of biotech hubs.
For example, one of the most widely cited rankings, from the real-estate consultants Jones Lang LaSalle, shows Seattle as the nation’s 10th most intensive life-sciences cluster.
Nobody would argue with some of the cities that come in above us: For example, Boston No. 1 and the Bay Area No. 3. But San Diego as No. 2?
San Diego has made great progress since I worked there and its economy was dependent on tourism and the Navy. The technology-commercialization program from the University of California, San Diego is an international model.
But the Jones Lang LaSalle rankings give heavy emphasis on employment in a metro with a much less diversified economy than Seattle. Its weighted average arguably overstates venture capital in San Diego. It doesn’t look at important metrics such as patents per capita.
Similar limitations can be found in the 2004 Milken Institute study.
Rivera, of the Washington Biotechnology & Biomedical Association, says the state compares favorably to San Diego. But, again, we lack thorough metro-to-metro yardsticks.
The Jones Lang report does offer important context.
It says the “new reality for life-sciences companies” is “one where the product-development formula of the past no longer applies, where extensive M & A activity is needed to fill pipelines and mitigate risk, and where an increasing amount of attention and opportunity lie in emerging markets.”
As Dendreon shows, “New product developments have become ever more costly and difficult to achieve.”
And as the industry contracts in mature markets, China, India, Brazil and Singapore are using aggressive incentives and public investments to elbow their way into the most sophisticated research and development of companies.
I would add this: Austerity and budget showdowns in D.C. have seriously damaged the size and reliability of research funding that built the United States into the world’s scientific leader.
All this matters more to Seattle as the aerospace cluster faces uncertainty from Boeing’s desire to spread work outside the Puget Sound area, and Microsoft, titan of the software cluster, struggles.
Getting the policy right will be an important part of whether we continue to keep a substantial bio cluster.
States with the biggest footprints in life sciences and biotech employ a variety of incentives. For example, Massachusetts offers a research and development tax credit, sales-tax incentive or deferral, grant matching and funding and other breaks aimed at the sector.
Washington matches up fairly well, with an R & D credit, business and occupancy tax credits and sales/use tax deferral. Next year, the R & D credit comes up for renewal. These breaks produce far more economic benefit than they cost.
Rivera said, “Seattle has huge opportunity to become global leader in life science and delivery by 2023.”
That would be wonderful. But given the new realities, holding our own may be a victory, too.
You may reach Jon Talton at firstname.lastname@example.org
About Jon Talton
Jon Talton comments on economic trends and turning points, putting them into context with people, place and the environment in the Pacific Northwest