New Life in Life Sciences

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When more than a thousand people, including nearly 100 foreign delegates from such distant places as Sweden, China and Japan, descended on Seattle in March for the 11th annual Life Science Innovation Northwest conference, they created an important milestone for the region’s biotech sector.

“This shows the growing interest in our biomedical industry,” says Chris Rivera, president of the Washington Biotechnology & Biomedical Association, who notes that attendance at the conference was up 50 percent from 2010.

The life sciences industry in Washington is already the fifth-highest provider of employment in the state, responsible for 22,000 direct jobs and 55,000 indirect jobs in 2009, according to the Washington Research Council. Rivera says the industry contributes $10.5 billion to the state economy. Exports reached $1.2 billion last year.

Strong research institutions such as the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the University of Washington are keys to this success. So are a rising entrepreneurial spirit and a continuing record of achievement: Seattle Genetics raised $178 million in February, while Dendreon’s new cancer treatment is seen as being among the nation’s most exciting new developments.

Nevertheless, Rivera says the biggest obstacle to growth is access to capital. Biotech venture capital investments nationally have declined by more than 10 percent a year between 2007 and 2010, according to Bloomberg. Some help could be on the way in the form of Wings, a nonprofit angel group focusing on investments in biomedical devices. WBBA also offers pro bono assistance for startups in the life sciences industry; Rivera says it nurtured 50 startups last year that are now viable entities.

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