Featured Stories

Other Pamplin Media Group sites

Bioscience still producing new jobs

My View • Industry is evolving; Portland remains competitive
by: CHRISTOPHER ONSTOTT, Dr. David Farrell performs tests at local biotech firm Gamma Therapeutics. A My View writer suggests Bioscience is thriving in Oregon and is an economic engine for the future.

Recent economic data has confirmed what most of us already knew. The U.S. economy is not surging upward, but grinding along in a vaguely positive direction. What's equally unsettling is that Oregon's economic indicators display a resulting inconsistency.

Despite this uneven recovery, Oregon's growing bioscience sector is expanding. Our local bio sector has grown by 18.3 percent in revenue since 2007, and by 10.1 percent in workers' personal income in Oregon.

With this recession-proof local impact, I found the recent article, "Biotech's broken promise" (April 12), particularly negative and incomplete.

As a leader for Oregon's $4.1 billion biotech/bioscience industry, I'm continually educating policymakers, executives, investors and colleagues about the significant impact this industry has on our state. The bioscience industry doubled in size during the past 10 years and employs more than 14,780 Oregonians at an average wage of $56,000. This is 39 percent higher than Oregon's average private sector wage of $39,000.

Since 2007, Oregon bioscience companies have increased employment by 8.4 percent, while other Oregon companies have lost an average of 5.4 percent of their workers.

An interesting case in point is Oregon Health and Science University spin-out MolecularMD. Founded in 2005, this innovative company almost doubled in size to 60 employees over the past year. MolecularMD's growth, coupled with the recent closing of a $6 million round of venture capital funding, further validates Portland's reputation as a world leader in personalized medicine.

It is unfortunate that examples like MolecularMD were not referenced to provide a more balanced portrayal of recent success in the bioscience industry.

In fact, bioscience success stories abound in Oregon. From metro-area market leaders such as Welch Allyn, Biotronik and TE Connectivity, to innovative companies outside the metro area -- Life Technologies (Eugene), Bend Research (Bend), Tree Star, Inc. (Ashland) and Siga Technologies (Corvallis), to name a few -- bioscience is thriving in our state.

Although not the main focus, the Tribune article also highlighted the questionable claim that Palo Alto, Calif., Boston and San Diego are so far ahead that Oregon's bioscience industry will never be competitive. Beyond the fact that this ignores the aforementioned success stories, this logic disregards the rapidly evolving nature of the bioscience industry.

While certain regions across the country have enjoyed past success, emerging trends in semiconductor-based DNA sequencing, oncology research and wireless medical devices offer opportunities for Oregon to capitalize on our traditional strengths -- personalized therapeutics, high technology and advanced manufacturing.

A recent survey conducted by BayBio (the San Francisco-based equivalent of Oregon Bio) found that "71 percent of California-based bioscience CEOs would move their companies elsewhere if they could," crystallizing just how significantly the playing field has changed in the last five years.

According to Galena Biopharma CEO Mark Ahn, the 2011 decision to relocate from Boston to Oregon made perfect sense. "We are a cancer therapeutics company, and the Pacific Northwest has established a growing global prominence as a renowned cancer research center," he said.

As a former Genentech vice president who managed one of their most successful cancer drug programs, Ahn's opinion (and actions) in regard to the trends in bioscience carry significant weight.

Of course, the article's criticism of the Collaborative Life Sciences Building is not particularly surprising. Maintaining Oregon's growing bioscience momentum requires infrastructure investments and decisions that rarely come without suspicion and negative feedback. Even Oregon's successful semiconductor industry has endured its share of criticism.

As Oregon's largest for-profit employer, Intel Corp. is regularly scrutinized over its state tax breaks. In 1994, the company announced it had plans to expand its Aloha plant. The Washington County Commissioners unanimously approved the $6.5 million tax break; when the plant was completed in 1996, it added more than 355 jobs. Subsequent negotiated tax breaks in 2010 led Intel to invest more than $6 billion to build a new chip factory, creating more than 8,000 construction jobs and ultimately employing 800 full-time, high-wage workers. Despite the creation of thousands of jobs, both projects endured a chorus of discontent prior to their approval.

In focusing on one small aspect of the life sciences building (less than 3 percent of the overall project), the larger stories were overlooked. The fact that the bioscience industry is continuing to thrive in Oregon, coupled with OHSU's ability to solicit the necessary private funds to double the scope of the proposed project, are signs of the industry's strength, not weakness.

Within this context, I believe the factor most limiting Oregon's bioscience industry is our own economic aspirations. Rather than micro-analyzing the space utilization of the life sciences building, the Oregon Bioscience Association is helping research how Ohio, Arizona, Colorado and other even more unlikely states have managed to redirect scarce strategic resources to target this industry.

Recognizing the rapidly evolving bioscience market, the Oregon bioscience industry is currently crafting the Oregon Bioscience Roadmap in an ongoing effort to foster a stronger, more focused and collaborative strategy. The plan will outline Oregon's key sectors and provide a strategic platform designed to maximize Oregon's share of this competitive worldwide market and its future economic impact.

We encourage and welcome your discussion, participation and support.

Dennis McNannay is executive director of the Oregon Bioscience Association.