Bristol-Myers Squibb to shutter ZymoGenetics

Why has UW biology been so much less successful than our rivals in San Francisco, San Diego, North Carolina, Philadelphia and Boston?

Zymogenetics was supposed to be the nidus, the spark for Seattle’s development of a biotech park.

Redevelopment of the old steam  plant preceded Paul Allen’s investment and the city’s construction boom. That investment was built on great excitement coming from Seattle companies like Immunex (creator of Enbrel,  a drug for rheumatoid arthritis, later acquired by Amgen), Rossetta (later becoming Merck’s bioinformatics division)  and ICOS (creator of the erection drug Cialis, later bought by Lilly).  State money poured in too.   Under Governor Christine Gregoire, Washington state’s income from the tobacco settlement was spent on a “Life Sciences Innovation” fund.  That money is now spent and all but a few startups are now gone too.

The lessons from Zymogentics are very disturbing.  “Zymo” was founded in 1981  by two UW Professors Earl W. Davie and Benjamin D. Hall along with UBC’s  Michael Smith, (a later winner of the Nobel Prize). The pioneering company brought together great innovations in protein chemistry including Ben Hall’s invention of a yeast chromosome as way to make proteins,  Earl Davies’ pioneering work on protein purification , and Smith’s work on making novel proteins by mutating their genes.  “Zymo” was going to do for the Udub what Genetech did for Stanford.

What happened?  ZymoGenetics began working on recombinant proteins with  Novo Nordisk, a Danish company that, along with Indiana’s Eli Lilly, makes most of the insulin in the world.  Zymo’s plans included making blood clotting proteins to treat everything from stroke to atherosclerosis.  UW faculty and Zymo staff worked in each other’s labs.   UW grad students even trained in Zymo labs.  Proteins were built but the trials failed.  ” Zymo” was acquired by Nova Nordsk  in 1988 with the idea that the Danish company  could provide the capital for the trials, broadening Nova Nordsk’s portfolio of disease.  When the trials failed, Zymo  spun off as a public company in 2000.  New efforts failed too.  Bristol-Myers Squibb acquired Zymo in 2010 for $885 million.  The remnant was now a production facility.  The research and development jobs have now been moved to San Francisco.

What has worked?   Non profits.  The UW, the Hutch, Childrens Hospital and the Allen Institute have spent millions of dollars building new research labs along the south side of Lake Union.   The Hutch, now allied with Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, has continued to grow along the lake’s eastern shore.

How well this public investment can contribute to Seattle and the UW is not at all clear. Stanford, UCSF, Harvard, MIT, the University of Pennsylvania, UCSD, UNC have all been hugely successful in building biology based economies that combine academic labs with for profit companies.  The continued growth of the UW as a center for industrial growth in areas more divers than computer science and web based retail is not very promising. Despite our academic strengths, Seattle’s collection of wealthy entrepreneurs,  and small companies like Adaptive Biotechnologies, Seattle Genetics and Juno Therapeutics, biotech startups struggle to get the attention and funding they need to develop in the shadow of the UW.

Why have we been so much less successful than our rivals in San Francisco, San Diego, North Carolina, Philadelphia and Boston? 

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