How Massachusetts Built A Booming Biotech Ecosystem and Washington Failed

Massachusetts Biotech

Today, among all American cities,  the city of Boston … receive(s) the most NIH funding for 24 consecutive years. That track record is significant because NIH is the largest public funding source of biomedical research worldwide.

(The UW and the Hutch combines do well but not ocmapred to the many institutions clusters in Boston and Cambridge. ) The Boston/Cambridge area benefits from what’s known in the biotech industry as clustering. There’s a high concentration of hospitals, leading universities and private companies in a relatively small area, which spurs collaboration and innovation. Clustering is particularly evident in Cambridge’s Kendall Square.

Cambridge’s Kendall Square is what might have been imagined for Seattle’s SLU. The tract is about a square mile ..about the size of SLU but located adjacent to MIT, a short ride by public transportation from Harvard Ynoversity, three Boston medical schools  and Boston’s prestigious research hospitals. 

Kendall Square, …. which has been labeled “the most innovative square mile on the planet,” has 25 biotech and life sciences companies and research institutions, including Amgen, Novartis Institute for Biomedical Research and Pfizer. (The square also includes) several institutes that shot off from Harvard or MIT and now lead the world.  These include the Whitehead, a leader in developmental biology and animal genetics, a neurobiology instute founded by the borthers Koch, the Broad Institute seen by many as the center of modern genetics.  The Broad and the Whitehead .. and many others .. were all founded by collaborations between private donors and outstanding scientists with roots in the Boston academic research centers.


The contrast with SLU is depressing.  There is one major drug comany, Nova Nordsk,  represented by a small facility.

I do not want to underplay SLU and its huge Amazon presence.  But, Amazoin is one tnenat and I would  suggest that SLU could be a lot more than Amazon’s HQ.  As t is, SLU is not much more than the publically funded extention of the UW campus, a few small institutes, and now an increasing presence of the research arm of Children’s hospital.   The other centers that are most visible to the public are a mix biology research instututes created by Paul Allen before he died .  Again sadly, but all too typical of Seattle academia, the Allen insitutes have very limitted interactions with the UW.

Although not itself in SLY, the Hutch is really the big player .. not only for its own impressive research but for startups and spin offs inluding adaptive biotechnologies .. a collaboration that brings Microsoft into one of the hottest areas of modern biology.

The issue of private donors is telling.  Massachusetts (18) and Washington (14) have about the same numbers of potential billionaire donors.  Moreover, the bulk of the megawealthy in Seattle are from tech, including the two richest ones in the world .. Bezos and Gates.  Yet, gifts to world-class biology centers comparable to the Broad, simply do not exist in Seattle.  

Image result for RJ Tesi

“What makes Boston different is that there’s this incredible stew that’s highly concentrated within 25 miles of downtown,”  Dr. RJ Tesi, who moved from the San Francisco Bay Area to Boston in 2015 and is the CEO and CMO of INmune Bio, a company that develops therapies for cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.

(Since Cambridge approved DNA research, the government and biotech management have supported biotech in other ways.  )  MassBio Edge, a  purchasing consortium, pools the buying power of its member companies to purchase goods and services, such as lab supplies, office supplies, bulk gas and compress gas, that the state’s biotech and life sciences companies need.  ….. The state also has 31 biotech and life sciences incubators. The Massachusetts Life Sciences Center (MLSC), an economic development and investment agency, has invested more than $700 million in the industry over the last 12 years via grants, loans, tax credits and workforce training and development programs. One of MLSC’s marquee programs is its Seed Fund, which invests up to $250,000 in convertible notes in emerging life sciences companies. Much of MLSC’s investment is the result of state government efforts. In 2008, Massachusetts launched an initiative to invest $1 billion over 10 years in the life sciences sector. As of June 2018, the state had invested or committed around $650 million. Last year, Governor Charlie Baker renewed the initiative and signed an act committing up to $623 million in bonds and tax credits over five years to drive education, research and development and workforce training in the life sciences industry.

The closest thing we have in WA state has been the Life Sciences Discover Fund based on the  tobacco settlement.  Aside from the fact that this fund was never very big and aside from raids on the fund by the state government, the grant process was very politicized .. trying to spread the few dollars across a state where, to be blunt, there really is not much expertise outside of institutions in Seattle.   To my knowledge none of those “investments” have led to any major institutional developments.


Massachusetts Biotech

Putting talent at the center

Though clustering and collaboration with government have helped the state’s biotech industry grow, most business leaders say what drives the industry is one of Massachusetts’ greatest natural resources — talent.

Massachusett’s high density of colleges and universities creates an enviable talent pipeline, one that remains strong even as low unemployment creates more competition for talent.

The comparison of Massachusetts with Washington state is not a good one for our future in biotech.  Other than the UW, there is no academic center in WA state with world rank.  The UW itself, instead of fostering branch campuses with expertise in their own right, has created UW branded campuses that are no more impressive than any of our state colleges.  None of the private schools in this state have much national status. The Allen institutes are still to young know what prestige they nay or may nto achieve.

Worse, the UW itslf does not have a stellar reputation for collaboration with industry and interactions with other institutes in Seattle .. including the Hutch, Swedish, Insitute for Systems Biology, the Benaroya, Childrens, .. are often tense ..caught up in arcane administrative turf wars.

One of the most bizarre examples was the fight between the Dean of the School of Medicine, Paul Ramsey, and the very presgious Lee Hood.  Hood, a pioneer in gene sequencing had been recruited to the UW by a gift from Bill Gates to found the Fept. of Genome Sciences. Hood left when the Dean refused to allow Hood to found an research instute affilated with the UW.  That story is well told in Hood’s biography written by Seattles’ premier writer on biotech, Luke Timmerman.   Timmermann’s account reflects a dismall view oif the atmosphere conducive to world class development at the UW.

To make matters worse the UW has recently redefined “tenure” making it largely an honorific title-less likely to attract top-level faculty.  Similar actions in Wisconsin have already hurt the ability of the University to attract talent. 


2 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. .. #

    You pasted your picture in here eight times. Is it coincidental that biotech took off in Boston and fizzled in Seattle when you moved from Boston to Seattle?

  2. theaveeditor #

    Lessee .. hmmm this seems to be more ohso anonymous email from Bill Quick. This troll lives in South Carolina and is my brother in law. He is a sometimes violent guy who, among other things has been part of the effort to steal and destroy my father’s heritage from Buchenwald.. A few years ago my site was hacked and I was able to trace this to an address close to Bill’s home in South Carolina. Since he and my sister are the only folks I know there I reported my suspicions to the SC state police. They told me they had limited resources but would pay Bill a visit. After that, I started getting these strange anonymous troll posts. Like this one, they trace to places ty[ical of any9ne using a VPN to hide his identity. For a long time the troll pretended to be a famous black jazz singer. I contacted her and that stopped too.

    He is a sick man.

    So FWI worth, the UW was among the top medical schools in the world when I chose to come here and my program added to that success. I am proud of that era here.

Your Comment