University of Washington, Bothell professor Steven Collins said Bothell’s biotechnology infrastructure simply is not in the same class as that to be found in Boston or San Diego.
But he does rank the city near the top of the second tier of biotechnology centers. He also added the Puget Sound area, including Bothell, is one of the top 10 biotechnology markets in terms of capital investment. Further, high tech medical firms account for a sizable percentage of local jobs, one of the highest percentages in the country, Collins said, at least in ratio to the local population.
“The challenge has been sustaining and attracting new companies,” Collins said.
With an eye toward solving that problem and building on the success already evident, Collins and two of his colleagues launched the Biotechnology and Biomedical Technology Institute at UW-Bothell. The enterprise took formal shape about a year ago, according to Collins, though the key players had been active informally prior to that date.
Collins said the first big step was working with the city of Bothell to earn the Bothell Technology Corridor status as an Innovation Partnership Zone (IPZ), a designation given by the state to recognize and help develop regional economic centers.
According to the city, in the case of Bothell, one goal of the IPZ was a survey of local machine shops working or ready and willing to work on the production of medical devices, that production being the focus of numerous local biotech firms.
“That’s what this area is about,” Collins said. “That’s where we count nationally.”
The institute and the city also collaborated on the first Washington State Biomedical Device Summit. Collins said the idea was to get an understanding of the state of the industry in Washington, and obviously, particularly this area. The second summit is planned for later this month at UW-Bothell.
Highlights are expected to include the release of an outlook study and presentations from UW, other industry representatives, as well as several of the bigger companies in the area such as SonoSite and Philips Healthcare.
As for the institute, working with the UW technology transfer office, one major future goal is setting up a business incubator in the Bothell area.
Generally, in dealing with high-tech businesses, incubators help entrepreneurs or researchers launch start-up companies, turning ideas into marketable products. Among other aid, incubators generally offer start-up companies lab or research space they usually cannot initially afford to put together themselves.
Collins said there is no timeline for launching the local incubator, but funding might be available in the form of federal stimulus money. The incubator clearly is aimed at what Collins already had argued is this area’s biggest challenge in the realm of biotechnology, the development of new firms.
“Other than a few companies, we haven’t had a lot of start-ups that became fully integrated, successful companies,” he said.
Even though there are challenges, Bothell and the Seattle area undoubtedly have carved out a high-tech niche. According to Collins the reason is twofold: the University of Washington and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Collins said nearly all of the firms in the area are connected in some way with either or both of those institutions, adding that their research and the scientists involved are what fuels the local high-tech sector. For its part, the UW is the top recipient nationwide of federal research dollars among non-private universities.
“It’s why we continue to see a fair amount of start-up companies,” Collins said.
In addition to hopes for a business incubator, Collins added UW-Bothell obviously hopes to supply the city’s technology corridor with properly trained and educated employees. The school plans to launch a minor in biomedical studies next year, with bachelor-degree offerings in electrical engineering and biology on the horizon.