Great potential in meshing state's life-sciences, global-health riches
With its concentration of medical-related companies and global health organizations, the state has the rich soil needed for growing jobs and new products.
Seattle Times business reporter
Supporting healthTEN LARGEST grants in 2008 from the National Institutes of Health to Washington organizations.
Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Leadership Group for Global HIV Vaccine Clinical Trials Network, $27 million
Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, HVTN Laboratory Program, $15.9 million
Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Leadership, for HIV/AIDS Clinical Trials Networks; HIV Vaccine Trials Network, $14.4 million
University of Washington, National Primate Research Center, $12.5 million
University of Washington, The WWAMI RCE for Biodefense and Emerging ID, $11.4 million
Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Cancer Center Support Grant (Comprehensive), $10 million
University of Washington, Institute for Translational Health Science (UL1), $9.9 million
Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Leadership for HIV/AIDS Clinical Trials Networks; Microbicide Trials Network, $7.1 million
Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Leadership for HIV/AIDS Clinical Trials Networks; HIV Prevention Trials Network, $6.9 million
University of Washington, EMS Network Data Coordinating Center, $5 million
Source: Washington Biotechnology and Biomedical Association
A hand-carried ultrasound device helps doctors in Haiti perform emergency surgery on earthquake survivors. A battery-powered chlorinator helps residents of a Kenyan slum make their water safe for drinking.
Both devices are examples of how local companies are using homegrown innovations to solve global health problems.
Meshing the region's expertise in life sciences with its global health money and mission could be one bright spot in the tech economy.
At a time when capital is scarce and the market for initial public offerings tepid at best, government and nonprofit money can fill the gap to help fund new ventures, especially in the early stages, said Steve Burrill, CEO of San Francisco-based Burrill & Co. He co-hosted a conference last week in Seattle that brought together people from the life sciences and global health sectors along the West Coast to discuss innovation.
Washington has almost 200 global health-related organizations and more than 120 biomedical-device companies. In 2009, investments in medical-device companies in the state hit nearly $170 million, up from $109 million in 2008, accounting for 31 percent of all venture-capital investments in the year, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers.
But some funding from foundations topped that. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation granted about $188 million to Seattle nonprofit PATH in 2009, most of it for clinical development of a malaria vaccine over five years. And research institutions in the state got almost half a billion dollars in federal stimulus funding.
From new vaccines for neglected diseases to small diagnostic "lab on a chip" technologies, a wide array of products are being invented in the region that have applications in health care, agriculture and biofuels.
At the same time, different fields are converging — biotechnology, medicine, engineering, computing and telecommunications — to produce interesting hybrids. Soon people will be able to "spit on a BlackBerry and go to a computer in the sky to tell not only what's wrong with us, but what's going to be wrong with us," Burrill said. "All of that technology exists today."
Chris Rivera, who heads the Washington Biotechnology and Biomedical Association, would like better collaboration among companies, research institutions and nonprofits, leading to more manufacturing and job creation.
"For Washington, the global health group here is such a great strength," he said. "Technologies in development for global health have potential applications for the domestic population here as well."
Changes in the marketplace are helping to drive demand for practical diagnostic tools and generics, while patents on expensive blockbuster drugs are expiring, Burrill said.
U.S. biotechnology companies also face increasing competition from China, where research and manufacturing costs are lower, business is booming and a growing middle class has access to more health options.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration is channeling more foreign aid toward global health challenges.
Rajiv Shah, former agricultural-development director at the Gates Foundation and now administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, returned to Seattle last week to address the life-sciences gathering. He outlined a new $63 billion Global Health Initiative and encouraged companies to focus some of their energy on health solutions for the world's poorest.
Shah said the government is looking for partnerships with the private sector on developing vaccines for HIV, tuberculosis and malaria; simple diagnostic tools; communications to transfer health data remotely; and technologies to eliminate the need to refrigerate vaccines.
The initiative's goals include reducing pregnancy-related deaths by 30 percent, preventing 3 million child deaths a year; preventing 1 million deaths from TB and cutting malaria cases by half in sub-Saharan Africa.
Robert Nelsen, managing director of Arch Venture Partners in Seattle, said the lengthy drug-approval process and other bureaucratic hurdles make him skeptical about how much such partnerships can accomplish.
Efforts to produce a vaccine for pandemic flu were far too slow and people died as a result, he said.
He suggested the government create a kind of DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) for health, using the Pentagon's huge purchasing power to spur development and "fund wild innovation" where companies and nongovernmental organizations can join in.
Some local projects are already poised to break new ground. Paul Yager, a bioengineering professor at the University of Washington, has been testing DxBox, a new tool that can take a few drops of blood and test for six diseases in about 10 minutes. The project, funded by the Gates Foundation, works in collaboration with four companies, including Redmond-based Micronics.
For Bothell-based SonoSite, which makes rugged, hand-carried ultrasound devices, applying its technology in countries without adequate health systems seemed a natural step.
It already had a successful commercial product for the developed world, used by the military in the field.
SonoSite offers a lower-cost program for humanitarian groups and has been working closely with Boston-based Partners in Health, said Anne Bugge, vice president of global public health at SonoSite labs. It has sent 100 machines to Haiti in the aftermath of January's devastating earthquake.
"We became aware through requests to support physicians on humanitarian missions that our hand-carried ultrasound systems could make a unique contribution to the health of people living where little in the way of resources or medical care is available," she said.
The devices have been used to help nurses perform exams on pregnant women in village clinics, and doctors perform local nerve blocks for surgery where there is no anesthesia machine. The devices were used recently in a makeshift operating room in Port au Prince.
Another product, by Seattle-based Cascade Designs and PATH, is designed as a simple solution to purify water.
The "smart electrochlorinator" takes salt, water and a small amount of electricity generated by a battery to produce a chlorine solution that makes water safe for drinking. PATH has been testing the device, which costs about $100, in the Korogocho slum of Nairobi and will soon begin field tests at a half-dozen other locations in Kenya and Zimbabwe.
Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or email@example.com
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.