Health technology has jobs, but walks on shifting sands

Jul 12, 2012

The Seattle area biotech and medical device industry is not likely to produce any companies as big as Microsoft or Amazon. But smaller companies, with strange names, keep popping up—like Etubics, Numera, Obenomics, and NanoString.

And, apparently, this sector is adding jobs.

That’s the word at the annual Life Science Innovation Northwest conference, in Seattle this week.

Looking at those company names, you might wonder, What exactly is this industry? The answer: just about everything related to health, from cancer treatments, to home-health monitoring, to vaccines.

That diversity is a good thing, according to Steve Burrill, an uber-investor in biotech companies, and the conference’s keynote speaker. He told the crowd of about 1,000 that the older model of biotech, where a scientist finds a molecule that might work as a drug or treatment against a disease, and a company spends years refining it, is looking less desirable.

In the old days, “you had to prove it was safe and you had to prove it worked, and if you did you got it approved,” and the system paid for it, says Burrill.

Now, the shifting sands in health-care mean it’s no longer good enough to create a drug that works. The cost of a treatment matters more.

“If you want to get a drug approved today, you have to prove its better and cheaper than stuff on the market,” he says.

If a new drug is similar to what’s already out there, and costs thousands of dollars, then insurance companies and the federal government probably aren’t interested. The new health care law, the Affordable Care Act, also has provisions for new treatments to prove their at least as cost effective as what’s already available.

The fact that nobody used to worry much about cost seems weird, but that’s how it worked.

Since new biotech drugs take ten or fifteen years to develop, some ideas now seem less attractive.

“The traditional model is going by the wayside. Our market is going more toward prevention and well-care, versus treating patients who are already sick,” says Chris Rivera, president of the Washington Biotechnology & Biomedical Association.

One hot new area, for example, is smart-phone apps that combine new blood test or heart monitor technology, to allow you as a consumer to be in charge of monitoring yourself, any day, any time.

Imagine when that device also knows your personal genetic code – which may be just around the corner – and you can see why so many startup companies are focusing on personalized medicine.

Job growth in Washington’s “life sciences” sector has been about 16% over the past decade, says Rivera, compared to an overall private sector rate of 3%. He says that growth slowed since 2008, but jobs are still being added.

But we may never hear much about all these startups, because of two other trends cited by Burrill:

  • They’re not waiting for Americans to get on-board – many companies were testing the markets in places like Brazil and Russia.  
  • They tend to sell themselves, once they start to grow, to one of the big multinational drug or device companies—which have gutted their own R&D efforts.

The WBBA has posted video highlights from the life sciences conference -- including keynote addresses by Steven Burrill and Gates Foundation CEO Jeff Raikes.