Marc Cummings thinks a lot about how to make life sciences companies successful in the Pacific Northwest. He took over as head of the Life Science Washington business group in December, succeeding former CEO Leslie Alexandre.
Cummings enters the role at a time of robust life sciences growth in the region, building on a recent broader boom in the sector. Life science employment grew 23.5% from 2015 to 2019 in Washington state, according to Life Science Washington, and investment in the field has accelerated over the past two years. Five Washington life sciences companies went public last year, raising more than $1.3 billion in their market debut.
Biotech markets are cooling overall, but the outlook for the region is still strong going forward, Cummings said in an onstage interview with me Thursday at Life Science Innovation Northwest 2022, the trade group‘s annual meeting. in Seattle.
Cummings spoke about the need to bolster the workforce as businesses mature in the region and what the industry can do to continue to thrive in the years to come.
Cummings was previously vice president of public policy and external affairs at Life Science Washington. He is now also president of the Life Science Washington Institute, an affiliated nonprofit that supports start-ups by life science entrepreneurs.
The questions and answers below have been edited for clarity and brevity.
GeekWire: Biotechnology stock values have fallen significantly from their highs about a year ago. How does this affect businesses in Washington State and how concerned are you?
Mark Cummings: The biotechnology market is down considerably, by 30% to 40%, which is staggering. I’m not overly worried. We’re coming off of last year…we’ve had the strongest growth you’ve seen here in a decade or two.
Coming out, this year won’t be last year. Last year was kind of a high point, and there will be some contraction. At the same time, a lot of companies here are pretty well capitalized. I am cautiously optimistic that we will maintain a strong and stable state, but not as good as last year.
Life sciences growth has been strong in the state in recent years. Businesses stay and grow – Seagen announced this week that it was building a new manufacturing plant for example. What have you seen changed?
It’s been really interesting and fun for the last four or five years. About five six years ago, we had just abandoned the [Washington state] R&D tax credit, we got rid of a biotech manufacturing tax credit, Amgen had left the state.
Fast forward to today, we have the fastest growing ever. Looking at the room here, returning for our first in-person event, there are over 600 people and the room is packed. The community is very dynamic. You see the strongest growth in years. We were known for very young companies that grew and moved to California, that sort of thing. This trend is completely reversed.
Across the United States, companies say they need trained workers to work in the life sciences industry. What needs to be done to strengthen the regional workforce?
We’ve seen so much growth over the past few years, and we just can’t sustain that through movement. [of workers] from one company to another. The cake has now reached the place where we need to add more. Just like in other industries, the focus has been on recruiting. But we need to add pipeline programs. In the last two years we’ve started programs with people like Shoreline Community College on manufacturing. We have a new $70 million building at UW Bothell [being completed] to hopefully train new STEM students. That’s really the goal for the future, to expand our partnerships in education and training.
Life Science Washington is making several efforts to help publicize the region’s growth and opportunities in the field. Tell us a bit about what you do.
Requirement [for workers] was so great that we actually hired a PR firm, built a massive six-figure campaign focused on what I called “overcoming the fears and myths of the area”. … What we find is that everyone who moves here, from San Diego, the Bay Area or Austin, somehow doesn’t know what’s here. And once they got here, they say it was a lot more dynamic than they thought, and they all stay. The presentation of these people really changed this tide. Now that we’re one of the top 10 national life science hubs, we want to get that knowledge out there so people in all of these other hubs know about the work that’s going on.
What more can people working in the life sciences community do to support its growth?
If you’re in the community, if you’re in Everett, if you’re in Redmond, if you’re in the Seattle Chamber, if you’re in Spokane, there’s always an aerospace and technical person on the panel. And so we need to be more visible in that community.
We will take the lead on this. I will go to all the rubber chicken dinners around the state to tell the story of the industry. But it’s so much more powerful if I can tell that story and show the economic impact of the industry if followed by one or two executives who can tell that story of their therapy because that’s what makes it real . If you’re hosting a student event or you’re a parent, you can also shift that narrative base: “Perhaps instead of being a doctor, I could heal more people by engaging in the development of a therapy.”
What do you see for life sciences in the next five years in the state?
I hope we will stay on this trajectory. We have developed a sort of very early to mid-stage corporate culture here. Now that our businesses are growing, staying and growing, the next five years will be about getting our growth under control. These are companies that we’ve grown from mid-cap companies to larger companies so that they can engage in some of these community and other activities in a way that’s both more visible and more tangible. When we talk about training programs, rather than just introducing ourselves, let’s build them together and make these things what we want them to be.