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Economic development, industry leaders form coalition to drive bioscience growth in region

A group of economic development and industry leaders recently received a $500,000 grant from the state to form a coalition that will support bioscience business and job growth in the University District, shown here in 2016.  (JESSE TINSLEY/The Spokesman-Review)
A group of economic development and industry leaders recently received a $500,000 grant from the state to form a coalition that will support bioscience business and job growth in the University District, shown here in 2016. (JESSE TINSLEY/The Spokesman-Review)

More than seven years ago, economic development and industry leaders launched an initiative to drive medical education, research and bioindustry growth in Spokane.

The Vison 2030 initiative, spearheaded by Greater Spokane Incorporated, the region’s chamber of commerce and economic development agency, calls for expanded medical education, medical sciences research, bioscience business development and community health care.

GSI projected health care and bioscience industry growth would be a significant economic driver for Spokane, generating $1.7 billion annually and creating more than 9,000 jobs by 2030.

The organization is now a step closer to realizing its goal of building what it describes as a “world class health and life science contract service industry in the region.”

GSI has partnered with life sciences incubator Spin Out Space in Spokane, known as sp3nw, to launch Evergreen Bioscience Innovation, an organization whose leadership includes entrepreneurs, investors, academia and members from the government and corporate sectors.

Evergreen Bioscience aims to make the region a leader in local supply-chain sourcing for pharmaceutical and medical device contract companies by prioritizing projects that address life science industry needs and acquiring, developing and retaining top talent.

“We are targeting growth of organizations that supply pharmaceutical and medical devices. We want to grow those organizations (in Spokane) and regionally,” said Stacia Rasmussen, GSI’s health and life sciences business development manager.

By developing a local supply chain for pharmaceutical and health care companies, it keeps their dollars within the local economy rather than sourcing products elsewhere, Rasmussen said.

The Washington State Department of Commerce recently awarded a $500,000 grant to Evergreen Bioscience to build a “cluster” in the Spokane region. The bioscience cluster is an industry-led consortium that works together to drive innovation, pursue market opportunities, and identify and solve challenges that limit growth.

“The modern definition of a cluster is to create a center of excellence in different areas and industries where national and international companies can rely on the fact that the clusters are experts in those areas and thus they are able to utilize the companies involved in the clusters and know they are top-notch in the country,” Rasmussen said.

Washington’s Innovation Cluster Accelerator is a multi-year program to strengthen industry ecosystems. The state’s accelerator program, which currently has nine clusters, is supported by a $15 million CARES Act Investment by the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

A portion of funding will go toward establishing the cluster, including technical assistance training for its board members Rasmussen said.

“That, in my mind, is key to establishing a structure for an innovation cluster, so we can be as successful as Maritime Blue for a different industry in the state of Washington,” Rasmussen said.

Seattle-based Maritime Blue is a partnership of public entities, businesses, ports, labor groups, community organizations, academic and research organizations that aim to accelerate maritime innovation and job growth.

Washington Maritime Blue was chosen from more than 500 nationwide applicants for $500,000 in initial funding and as a finalist to compete for up to $100 million in the U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Administration’s Build Back Better Regional Challenge.

Development of Evergreen Bioscience is an initial planning stage, but its anticipated to be established by next year with a beginning membership of 25 to 100 participants, Rasmussen said.

“We have reached out to potential members and we have 85 to 90 companies that have submitted letters of support for this effort,” Rasmussen said. “They are waiting for us to identify membership levels. Our next step is to reach out to them and say, ‘Here’s what participating in the cluster will require.’ ”

Sp3nw, Katrina Rogers Consulting, Health Sciences and Services Authority of Spokane County, Clear Solutions Biomedical, VectorPoint Ventures, Johnston Engineering, and Alturas Analytics Inc. were all instrumental in obtaining the Evergreen Bioscience cluster grant, according to GSI.

GSI will serve as the “home” organization for the cluster. It’s hoping to recruit and grow companies in the University District, although they do not necessarily have to be exclusive to that area, Rasmussen said.

Evergreen Bioscience plans to conduct a study in the future that will identify economic impact of the cluster, Rasmussen said.

GSI is working with sp3nw to learn how to support startups’ needs and create more incubator and “graduation space” – a larger office for growing startups – for businesses.

“That’s a focus we feel will be important for economic development,” Rasmussen said. “In addition, we have other companies further along in their growth that still have supply-chain challenges in our region, so we are working with those organizations to understand their needs.”

Growing the life sciences sector

Expanding the life sciences sector in Spokane requires a strong entrepreneurial community supported by financial opportunities, said Michaele Armstrong, associate director of sp3nw, an early-stage life sciences incubator in Spokane’s University District.

Washington State University launched sp3nw in 2020 to connect startups with mentors, consultants and investors. It also provides startups with office and lab space, and assistance with bringing their products to market.

“We were co-authors for the Evergreen Bioscience application and what attracted us to this opportunity is how it really is a larger look at the things we are doing for small companies, entrepreneurs and startups in life sciences in Spokane and Eastern Washington,” said Armstrong, who is also an Evergreen Bioscience board member.

Spokane’s hospitals as well as Washington State University’s Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine and University of Washington’s School of Medicine in Spokane prompted a need for more innovation, leading to formation of sp3nw, Armstrong said.

“Washington State University has more than quadrupled its research funding in life sciences,” Armstrong said. “When you have an increase in that much research, commercialization will happen … As companies begin to scale and grow, they are going to need a space to support that and the Evergreen Bioscience cluster is helping to provide that.”

Sp3nw’s formation has garnered interest from life sciences companies nationwide, Armstrong said. It currently has 22 startups in its portfolio, according to the incubator’s website.

“We received phone calls and emails from companies around the nation that wanted to learn more about what Spokane was doing in the life sciences (sector), and we’ve actually been able to recruit companies to Spokane from California, Tennessee and Virginia,” Armstrong said. “This Evergreen Bioscience cluster is only going to amplify the draw for life sciences companies to the area.”

After the cluster is formed next year, it will begin determining the type of projects to build in the University District, Armstrong said.

A potential project could consist of 120,000 square feet of contract research organization and manufacturing space. An anchor tenant would occupy 60,000 square feet, while the remainder of the building would be split into 2,000- to 4,00-square-foot modules for startups, Armstrong said, adding the plans are speculative at this point.

Evergreen Bio recently selected Mary-Pierre Waiss as its board chair. Waiss is an entrepreneur with extensive experience in biomedical, life science and health care innovation and technology.

She is also founder, CEO and board member of Seattle-based Precision Image Analysis, which created a cloud-based product to help radiologists and cardiologists with analysis of MRI and CT scan images.

Waiss said she’s impressed by Spokane’s efforts to grow its biomedical, life sciences and health care industries.

“It’s very exciting. I’m so impressed with the universities and what is happening there. The universities are expanding engineering and science curriculums, and that will only drive innovation (in life sciences),” she said. “The timing of the grant and what is happening globally makes for a great environment for this cluster to thrive.”

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