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A Site Selection Web Exclusive, September 2021
WEB Exclusive story

Washington Builds a Life Science Cluster

The battle against the pandemic propels biotech R&D to the forefront.

Founded and run by a group of philanthropic women more than 100 years ago, Seattle Children’s Research Institute is a leader in cancer therapies, genetics, neuroscience, immunology, infectious disease and bioethics.
Photo courtesy of Seattle Children’s Research Institute and AGC of America

Dr. Leslie Alexandre is President & CEO of Life Science Washington
Dr. Leslie Alexandre is President & CEO of Life Science Washington

Tucked into the Pacific Northwest is an oasis of life science success that is rapidly making a name for itself beyond the region. Commercial real estate giant CBRE recently named Seattle the top emerging life science cluster in the country, and the growth of this sector is occurring both inside and outside the Emerald City.

With more than 1,100 life science organizations throughout Washington, the state is on an upward trajectory in multiple life science fields as it continues to lure skilled professionals working in biotechnology, medical devices, pharmaceuticals, bioinformatics, biomanufacturing, contract research, digital health, agriculture, animal health and more.

From 2014 to 2017, the life science industry in Washington recorded its strongest job growth in a decade at rates outpacing all other private-sector job growth in the state. The advent of COVID-19 played a role in this. Washington’s life science sectors are growing to meet the many challenges posed by the global pandemic, the first North American case of which was diagnosed in the state.

“The University of Washington always ranks in the top five in the country for federal research dollars.” – Dr. Leslie Alexandre, President & CEO, Life Science Washington

Serving on the front lines in the battle against COVID-19 and other diseases is Dr. Leslie Alexandre, president and CEO of Life Science Washington, a Seattle-based nonprofit organization that exists to support the growth of the life sciences in the state and recruit more life science professionals to Washington. We recently caught up with her for an insightful discussion on the growth of the life science sector in Washington.

What is the main goal of Life Science Washington?

DR. LESLIE ALEXANDRE: Our main goal is to be the connector of people and resources and create an environment in which our companies can flourish and grow. We exist to connect our members to each other and to funding.

What are Washington's best assets for the attraction of life science workers and companies?

ALEXANDRE: Washington is an exciting environment for life science workers right now. First, we are a highly desirable place to live. This place is an incredible draw for young people. We are very attractive to diverse individuals because we are a haven for diversity. There are plenty of great outdoor activities in Washington, and the R&D taking place here is in a class by itself. The life science community here is built on massive research. The University of Washington always ranks in the top five in the country for federal research dollars. UW brings in a disproportionate share of National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health funding. Today, it is No. 5 in the U.S. for research expenditures.

There are other top R&D centers in the state too. One of the top cancer research centers in the country is here: the Fred Hutchinson/University of Washington Cancer Consortium. The Allen Institute for Immunology is here. We have a cluster of top research institutes that have given rise to healthy startup companies. Larger firms want to be a part of that. Bristol Myers Squibb bought Celgene, which had bought another firm. They put a stake in the ground on cell therapies and gene oncology.

Where does the state rank in key life science benchmarks?

ALEXANDRE: In a recent CBRE report, we were ranked as one of the fastest growing life science markets in the country. They annually rank the 10 fastest growing clusters, and two years ago we were the fastest growing cluster in the country. Then we became a top 10 market. U.S. News & World Report just named Washington the No. 1 Best State in America. We are one of the most vaccinated states in the country. People love to live, work and play here.

What can you tell me about recent major projects or breakthrough discoveries in the state?

ALEXANDRE: In terms of breakthrough discoveries, this area is constantly churning out innovation. We have done a lot in COVID-19 research and development. All the vaccine phase 3 trials were managed by the Fred Hutch Cancer Center. In diagnostics, Adaptive Biotechnologies in Seattle [which just moved into a new headquarters] discovered a T-cell test for developed immunity for COVID-19. We have all sorts of therapies and innovation happening. The pod system for biological manufacturing was developed in Redmond Ridge. Just-Evotec Biologics did that. Also, two migraine therapies were approved in the last two years here. One is a nasal spray that just got FDA approval for a spray mist. Alder Biopharmaceuticals in Bothell also won approval for a migraine medicine. The Allen Institute is working on 3D wiring of the brain, and the Institute for Protein Design at UW, led by David Baker, has turned out at least six new companies.

CBRE ranked Seattle as the fastest-growing life science market in the U.S.

In another field, a complete sequencing of the human immune system is being done in Washington. If you can see your immune system, you will know everything about your health. Adaptive Biotechnologies introduced a test for blood-borne cancers. That gives us the ability to do much earlier detection. Seattle biotech startup Nautilus is doing research on sequencing proteins. They did a hugely successful fund raising recently.

You are retiring at the end of this year. How did your own career path take you to Washington?

ALEXANDRE: I was born in Vancouver, Washington, and raised in the Bay Area. I relocated to lead Life Science Washington. I can attest to the fact that it is a drop-dead-gorgeous state. It is easy to get around. People come here and look at housing prices and get concerned about the cost of living. But compared to the other major coastal ecosystems for life sciences, our home prices are about half of those in the Bay Area.

Why should companies locate in Washington now?

ALEXANDRE: We are at the epicenter of convergence, where tech meets biology. We have Microsoft and Amazon here — the giants of cloud computing, artificial intelligence and machine learning are grounded here, and they are working with some incredible life science companies. We are seeing a path of R&D that was never deemed possible before.

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