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Saturday, September 30, 2006

Build It and They Will Come

Paul Allen had an idea. He wanted to turn the south Lake Union area of Seattle into a biotech hub. It is a beautiful part of Seattle and what could better compliment such a place than a large population of well paid professionals? Oh sure, there'd be a lot of science geeks but look what Microsoft has done for the Northwest. You'd be surprised how much more attractive a geek becomes with a Porche and the kind of women they attract.

Yesterday I was riding my bike in the South Lake Union area. There is a building that has been there for at least three years. I noticed this building when I first arrived up here 3 years ago. The building was completely empty. "Lab Space For Rent", the sign said. I was excited by the thought of having jobs popping up right there where I lived. I wouldn't have to drive all the way out to Bothell to ply my trade. Paul Allen was putting in high rise apartments and upscale retail space. This was going to be nice, I thought. In the past three years I interveiwed at two seperate biotech companies that set up shop in that building. The first company had two employees. the president and his lab worker, and one small laboratory. At the next company there were said to have been 5 employees. I talked with three, one of whom claimed only to work there Monday through Thursday. On Friday he worked at another company in the building. He said he wouldn't have taken the job if it had been for just the one company. Hmm. So when I rode past this building yesterday I stopped and looked up to see how they were all doing.

The building is quite large. There are approximately 8 floors on a nearly entire city block space. The companies that I interviewed with are part of Leroy Hoods Accelerator Corporation. So far there are 5 companies taking up approximately 1% of the total space in the building. Fred Hutch takes up space on the top floor. There is a coffee shop and a failing fitness center on the ground floor. The rest of the building remains empty. The building will serve as a measuring stick for biotech in the area. It will serve as a measuring stick for Paul Allens dream of turning the Lake Union area into a biotech hub. As I've mentioned, the main renter in the building is the Accelerator Corp. All of their labs are on the north end of the building on the second floor. This is the shortest side of the building. Still, as I rode along looking in, I saw one empty lab after another. Each lab was new, clean, gas and air on each bench, and empty. Eventually I passsed the Accelerator companies. They comprised about four of the little lab spaces.

The company that is truly making money off of this business venture is called BNB construction. They were busy outfitting more of the interior space. Will it be lab space? Are the buildings owners contemplating renting to non-biotech companies? It's hard to tell. Very little news comes from the dreamers of the biotech hub. "Build it and they will come", does not seem to be happening here. Major players like Leroy Hood may have seen his best days long ago. The big companies like Amgen and Genentech tend to build their own buildings. Whose left?

The investment capital is one factor in making this work. They have done their part. What the dreamers were counting on was the brain power of UW, Fred Hutch and the other institutes around such as Leroy Hoods Institute for Systems Biology. Where are all of the big ideas? Why can't a huge investment and all of this brain power generate more than a few companies taking up four small lab spaces? And these companies are not generating any buzz! Were these companies set up like plastic decoys? Was Leroy Hood brought in as a duck call? No one is talking about it up here. In a previous post I talked about an article written back in 2004 exposing the woes of biotech. Billions and billions had been lost at this point. I've talked about the woes of city officials in Boca Raton Florida who shelled out millions to attract biotech to the area and ended up with a bunch of suit and tie people asking for more money.

Here in Seattle we have seen failure. Targeted Genetics gave up its cystic fibrosis gene therapy treatment. Icos gave up its emphysema and chronic bronchitis research after four years. Corixa dropped a lymphoma drug that was 15 years in the making. Cell Therapeutics was sued by investors after it's lead candidate failed to reach it's clinical trial endpoints. Dendreon, Targeted Genetics, Cell Therapeutics all laid off a majority of their R&D teams last year. Excyte, NeoRx, Corixa, Cell Tech, all closed up shop. But if you look at the web sites you will see management staffs with the big degrees. You will see boards of directors and scientific advisory boards with more degrees. None of these people will ever talk to the lowly laboratory scientist who will have to develop the drugs that the big brains have decided must be developed. The big brains will build companies. They will get the money. They will do everything but go into the lab and see if it was all worth it. The end results have been seen over and over again. But it's starting to lose it's luster. The buildings are empty. The workers are leaving for other careers. The country still has it's lust for drugs but the dreamers are starting to see their folly.

1 comment:

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