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Saturday, February 07, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.
Amgen hopes $10 million symbol of DNA will elevate its image
By Luke Timmerman
"The first thing people say when they come in is: 'The city must be spending stupid money on something,' " said Woolsey, a sales manager for Blackstock Lumber. "We always tell them, 'No, it's Amgen.' "
The second reaction is like his own: "It's a marvel of engineering and art."
Amgen's spare-no-expense $10 million footbridge opened this week and has begun stirring talk about its potential as an icon-in-the-making for the city and its emergence in biotechnology.
For practical purposes, the company needed a path so its bus-riding employees could cross over the railroad tracks to the Helix research campus. And the city required the company to let the public use the path to reach the waterfront.
A bare-bones version could have cost $1 million or less. But the company decided to build a bridge whose twisting steel beams symbolize the spiral-staircase shape of the DNA molecule, something to hint at the leading-edge research Amgen is doing to invent biotech drugs.
The bridge can be seen by more than 50,000 drivers who pass it every day.
The high price stuns many people, but for Amgen, a Fortune 500 company that is by far the world's richest biotech, the cost equals about two days' sales of its breakthrough arthritis drug, Enbrel. Immunex, which Amgen bought in 2002, got a rather sweet deal on the land from the Port of Seattle and persuaded government agencies to pay for a $19 million vehicle bridge to the campus.
Amgen says its money was well spent on the footbridge, which has custom-fabricated steel beams with stainless-steel handrails and cables for durability and looks. The company could have gotten by with ramps to make the bridge accessible to disabled people, but it built glass elevators.
One reason it spent big: public image. The medical-research industry's work is well-known among physicians who prescribe its drugs. But to consumers, it doesn't make products with household names.
If biotech wants to win more government research subsidies, entice investors or make patients feel comfortable with enrolling in its clinical drug experiments, many in the industry say, it needs to improve its image and better educate the public about what it does.
"We felt this (bridge) would be an investment in the community, and it would stimulate curiosity about the industry and the company, which would be good for us," said Ed Fritzky, former chief executive of Immunex. "We thought people would look at it and ask, 'What is that? Who did that? Why is it shaped like that?' "
The principal architect, Steve Johnson of Johnson Architecture Planning, said that if, as predicted, technology development spurs nearby residential development, the bridge will become an attraction and boost public use of Elliott Bay Park.
"The bridge will be an icon for this part of the city," Johnson said. "It's not the Space Needle it doesn't soar 500 feet in the air but as biotech grows, it will take on more symbolism."
Luke Timmerman: 206-515-5644 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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