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Marc Cummings
President and CEO
Life Science Washington

09 January 2023

Washington is building a life sciences ecosystem at a rapid pace – do you have the workforce to fuel it?

Washington state has always enjoyed a strong research base, a history of developing innovative FDA-approved therapies and excelled in areas such as medical devices as well. Washington is a leader in immunotherapy and other novel cancer therapies and is known as the ultrasound capital of the world. After steady growth for several decades, we have seen a dramatic expansion of the industry in the last eight years or so, particularly in the biotechnology space. Developing a workforce to support that growth has been a challenge, but the University of Washington, which is one of the top recipients of NIH funding in the country along with a robust mix of highly collaborative non-profit research institutes provides a strong talent base. Seattle is also a tech powerhouse, which has helped as big data and machine learning play an increasing role in the life sciences. In some companies, as many as half of their employees are data analysts and computer scientists.  Increasingly, we see people who have worked in tech that want to have a greater impact on people’s lives migrating to life science and digital health. So, it is important for us to help them make this transition into the biotech industry.

In Washington we are focusing on cutting edge, next generation therapies. It is much more difficult to bring to market a new immunotherapy, cell therapy, or CAR T-cell therapy than to work on marketing a drug that has been around for a while. Therefore, our focus is to make sure we beat the drum with legislators and policymakers and make sure that there’s sufficient capital to continue research and development for these companies developing next generation drugs.

How has the pandemic changed Washington state’s approach to innovation and R&D? 

Washington state was originally ground zero for the pandemic with the first case of Covid-19 in the U.S. We saw the entire Washington life science community pivot in the first two to three months of the pandemic. At one point we had over 150 different Covid-related projects that our companies and research institutes were working on. For example, Fred Hutch Cancer Center managed all phase 3 trials for Operation Warp Speed and the first Moderna clinical trial was conducted in Washington because of the region’s experience.  People rolled up their sleeves and the traditional partnering agreements that normally take months - or even years - were sorted quickly because of the realization that we are all in this together. As the market for Covid-related treatments tightens, people that were in that space are transitioning back to their initial areas of expertise. 

How is Washington handling clinical trial diversity, an area that has been challenging for the industry?

Clinical trial diversity is a big point of focus in Washington state. For example, the University of Washington School of Medicine manages a network across a five-state region, including Washington, Wyoming, Alaska, Montana, and Idaho, focused on providing high-quality healthcare programming in rural and underserved urban areas. 

Additionally, Washington State University recently brought online an entirely new medical school, which will work to serve the rural populations.  Finally, clinical trial diversity is a focus of the state’s $30 million Andy Hill Cancer Research Endowment. 

The biopharmaceutical industry still suffers from a somewhat controversial public perception, particularly related to pricing – do you believe it is warranted?

There is a prevalent belief that pharma has a lot of money and that it is easy to start, fund and maintain a life science company. This could not be further from the truth. Washington is a homegrown, research-driven ecosystem. Most of our companies are founded by young researchers or doctors, and for the first 10 to 15 years these companies don’t have revenue.  During that time, they are focused on research and working through the FDA approval process, trying to make sure they raise enough capital to keep their companies alive and finance their research. In this long and challenging period the costs are significant, as it takes around $2 billion to get a drug to market. Big pharma is a different story altogether because large pharmaceutical companies have revenue and are well capitalized.  I think there’s a lack of understanding about the differences between early-state biotech and mature pharmaceutical companies.  Once people understand the time and expense associated with bringing a new therapy to market, they develop a new appreciation for the price of breakthrough therapies.  The key is educating people on the long and costly journey of getting drugs to market.

As novel technologies keep emerging, are we witnessing an inflection point in the collaboration between tech and the life sciences? 

We are at a point where tech & AI are transforming the industry. You still need to understand the basic biology and chemistry but applying big data and machine learning tools opens new frontiers. It’s become much more real in the past few years. Five to 6 years ago there was hype, and a lot of people were anticipating breakthroughs, but very few actual ongoing projects. Today, companies have products on the market that utilize these tools.  In some cases, a company like Adaptive Biotechnologies that partnered with Microsoft to map out the entire human immune system is using machine learning to support both drug development and clinical diagnostics.  Provencio is using AI to dramatically increase the accuracy of blood tests, and digital health start-up Waverly Diagnostics is allowing parents to diagnose an ear infection with an iPhone and a piece of paper. Given the region’s rich talent pool of tech executives and people with machine learning expertise, there are increasingly more projects and company startups operating in the digital health space.

If we were to have this discussion 10 years in the future, what do you think would be the main changes in the industry? 

 

Washington is now in the top 10 life science hubs in the United States, and last year Washington’s early-stage life sciences industry raised over $ 5.1 billion. Investors, both nationally and globally, are clearly banking on the sector. 

 

Looking ahead, I think we will see dramatic changes in cancer survival rates, and I am confident that Washington will be at the forefront of that. Likewise, we are already seeing a new wave of companies that are at the convergence of life science and tech and that trend will continue. Treatment wise, it is inspiring to witness that we already have the tools to develop the next generation of cancer therapies. Right now, many are expensive personalized treatments.  We will need to bring the costs down.  As we develop the next generation of therapies, I think that will happen.

Ultimately, technology is there to propel the industry forward in a way that was unimaginable a decade ago – and Washington state is a leader in this convergence of technology and life science.

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