Health/Life Sciences

Life sciences trade in Washington state: New commerce group chief on sustaining development and bolstering workforce

Life Science Washington CEO Marc Cummings (left) with GeekWire reporter Charlotte Schubert in an interview at Life Science Innovation Northwest 2022. (Red Box Pictures Photo / Scott Eklund)

Marc Cummings thinks a lot about how to ensure success for life science companies in the Pacific Northwest. He took the helm of the trade group Life Science Washington in December, taking over from previous CEO Leslie Alexandre.  

Cummings steps into the role at a time of robust life sciences growth in the region, building on a recent wider boom in the sector. Life science employment rose 23.5% from 2015 to 2019 in Washington state, according to Life Science Washington, and investment in the field has accelerated in the last two years. Five Washington life science companies went public last year, raising more than $1.3 billion in their market debuts.

The biotech markets are cooling overall but the prospects for the region are still strong for the future, said Cummings in an on-stage interview with me Thursday at Life Science Innovation Northwest 2022, the trade group’s annual meeting in Seattle.

Cummings talked about the need to bolster the workforce as companies mature in the region and about what the industry can do to keep prospering in the coming years.

Cummings previously served as vice president of public policy and external affairs at Life Science Washington. He is now also the chair of the Life Science Washington Institute, an affiliated non-profit that supports life science entrepreneurs start-ups.

The Q&A below was edited for clarity and brevity.

GeekWire: Biotech stock market values have declined substantially since their peaks about a year ago. How is this affecting Washington state companies and how concerned are you?

Marc Cummings: The biotech market is down considerably, 30-40%, which is staggering. I’m not super worried. We are coming off of last year … we’ve seen the strongest growth that you’ve seen here in a decade or two.

Coming out, this year is not going to be last year. Last year was sort of a high watermark, and there will be some contraction. At the same time, a lot of the companies here are pretty well capitalized. I’m cautiously optimistic that we will maintain at a solid steady state, though not quite as well as last year.

Life sciences growth has been strong in the state over the last few years. Companies are staying and growing — Seagen announced this week it is building a new manufacturing facility for example. What have you seen change?

It’s been really interesting and fun the last four or five years. About five six years ago, we had just given up the [Washington state] R&D tax credit, we got rid of a manufacturing tax credit for biotech, Amgen had left the state.

“We used to be known for very young companies that grew up and moved to California, that kind of thing. That trend is totally reversed.”

Fast forward to today, we have the strongest growth ever. Looking at the room here, coming back for our first in person event, there are over 600 people and the room is packed. The community is super vibrant. You see the strongest growth in years. We used to be known for very young companies that grew up and moved to California, that kind of thing. That trend is totally reversed.

Companies everywhere in the U.S. say they need workers trained to work in the life sciences industry. What’s needs to be done to bolster the workforce regionally?

We’ve seen so much growth over the past several years, and we just can’t sustain that by movement [of workers] from one company to the next. The pie has now grown to the place where we have to add more. Just like in other industries, there’s been a huge focus on recruitment. But we have to add pipeline programs. In the last couple of years, we started programs with folks like Shoreline Community College on manufacturing. We have a $70 million new building in UW Bothell [being completed] to hopefully turn out some new STEM students. That’s really the focus going forward, to scale our education and training partnerships.

Life Science Washington has several efforts to help get the word out about the region’s growth and opportunities in the field. Tell us a little bit about what you’re doing.

The demand [for workers] has been so great, we actually hired a PR firm, built a huge six-figure campaign focused on what I called “overcoming fears and myths of the region.” … What we find is that everybody that moves here, from San Diego or the Bay Area or Austin, they kind of aren’t sure what’s here. And once they get here, they say this was way more vibrant than they knew, and they all stay. Introducing those folks really changed that tide. Now that we are a top 10 national life science cluster, we want that knowledge out there so folks in all those other hubs are aware of the work that’s going on.

What more can people working in the life sciences community do to support its growth?

If you are out in the community, if you’re up in Everett, if you’re over in Redmond, if you’re at the Seattle Chamber, if you’re in Spokane, there’s always an aerospace and tech person on the panel. And so we’ve got to be more visible out in that community.

We’re going to be taking the lead on that. I am going to be going to every rubber chicken dinner event around the state telling the industry story. But it’s so much more powerful if I can tell that story and show the economic impact of the industry if it is followed by one or two executives that can tell that story of their therapy, because that is what makes it real. If you have a student event, or you’re a parent, you can also move that narrative base: “Maybe instead of being a doctor, I could cure more people by going into therapy development.”

What do you see for the life sciences in the next five years in the state?

I hope we stay on this trajectory. We have grown sort of a very early- to mid-stage kind of corporate culture here. Now that we’ve got companies growing and staying and expanding, the next five years is about owning our growth. It’s about companies that we drove from mid-cap to larger companies to be able to engage in some of these community and other activities in a way that is both more visible and more tangible. When we talk about training programs, rather than just sort of showing up, let’s build those together and make those things what we want them to be.

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