Does Washington need to do more to support its life-sciences sectors? Ongoing state support elsewhere indicates yes.

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Seattle and the Puget Sound region are about airplanes, software, e-commerce and cloud computing. True enough. But Washington state, especially centered on Seattle, is also a major biotech and life-sciences cluster.

No wonder the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a leading tech think tank, features Washington among five states in a new study about how public policies affect life-science industries. The other states studied are Colorado, Indiana, New Jersey and North Carolina (California, a huge power in these sectors, is a curious omission).

The problem is that Washington’s targeted support for these sectors has diminished in recent years, as the Legislature defunded the Life Sciences Discovery Fund, launched in 2005 with tobacco-settlement money. The state removed its $11 million in 2015, over Gov. Jay Inslee’s veto (total state budget $38.2 billion). As a result, the fund no longer takes applications for grants.

One could make the case that the state doesn’t need to provide preferences for industries with such strong anchors. Seattle benefits from the University of Washington, among the top recipients of National Institutes of Health grants, and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Institute. Don’t forget the Allen Institute for Brain Science. Then there’s the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, leader in world health.

On the plus side, the ITIF counted 191 pharmaceutical companies, 294 medical-device companies, and 78 nonprofit research institutions in Washington. On the other hand, Seattle lost Immunex, then its acquirer Amgen, and never built another giant bio employer. In January, Juno Therapeutics, one of the biggest local biotechs by market capitalization, was acquired by New Jersey-based Calgene.

Last year, industry representatives warned lawmakers that employment was stagnating. Priorities established by the sectors have gained little footing in Olympia, but they’re still valid.

The report shows other states are not as complacent. For example, there’s North Carolina Biotechnology Center (NCBiotech), created in 1984. “Since 1989, the program has made loans to 188 companies, 102 of which are still active. These companies employ 2,914 workers and have estimated revenues of $2.8 billion,” according to the report. The wider economic impact sustains more than 12,000 jobs.

In 2004, the Milken Institute ranked Seattle-Bellevue-Everett No. 5 out of the nation’s dozen commanding biotech clusters. Little has changed since then despite other states’ efforts to capitalize on “meds and eds” partnerships among universities, hospitals, research outfits and private-sector companies. That doesn’t mean one of the elite metros can’t fall — especially because of inattention to what rival states are doing.

This issue gains special urgency at this time with this occupant of the White House. President Trump has been no fan of science and funding research. The new budget at least keeps NIH funding flat and the worst fears about research weren’t realized. But that will hardly keep up with the health sciences and other research around the world, rising at a rate that risks leaving America as an also-ran.


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