By Dianne Danowski Smith, APR, Consultant
Four industry leaders convened in a panel to kick off the Oregon Bioscience Association’s Biotech Summit 2023, held for the first time at Twist Bioscience’s new ‘factory of the future’ in Wilsonville.
Advancing bioscience through innovation comprised the Summit’s goal and served as the backdrop for the networking, conference and Innovation Showcase in late October. To highlight the growth and evolution of the industry here in Oregon and Southwest Washington, the panel’s experts shared their respective strategies in highlighting their firms, and how they’ve chosen our region to site and grow. Much of the conversation focused on their unique assessments about what makes our local bio ecosystem spark, how to spur future growth and ways to up Oregon’s ‘game,’ in terms of future competitiveness.
Panel moderator Tim Layton who directs government affairs in the Pacific Northwest for Genentech welcomed to the panel Matt Beaudet, CEO at InVivo Biosystems; Angela Bitting, Senior Vice President of Corporate Affairs and Chief ESG Officer at Twist Bioscience; and Adam Blackwell, Co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer at Molecular Testing Labs.
Beaudet expressed, “As a spinout from the University of Oregon, I remain incredibly bullish on biotech in Oregon.” He shared how he gained industry knowledge and leadership opportunities at some of our region’s largest and most prolific bio and device companies including Invitrogen (which acquired Molecular Probes more than a decade ago) and then Life Technologies. Life Technologies was then acquired by Thermo Fisher Scientific. In 2014, he spun out his company InVivo Biosystems, formerly named Nemametrix. Now it employs 50 people in the Willamette Valley.
Beaudet shared InVivo’s core mission, which is to manufacture and commercialize transgenic and phenotype products and services involving C.elegans and zebrafish, the latter being the second most used model and technology by scientists and drug discovery teams around the world to better understand the nature of genetic diseases – all originated by Beaudet and his team at the University of Oregon.
Angela Bitting works at both of Twist Bio’s locations – in South San Francisco and in Wilsonville. She shared a simple way to consider Twist Bioscience’s core business model – making a ‘lab on a chip’ to synthesize DNA at what it calls its newest ‘factory of the future’ that has been gearing up and hiring for as many as 400 planned positions.
Panelist Bitting described Twist Bio’s considerations to site in Wilsonville included the ecosystem’s growth locally, and physical factors such as buildable land and available square footage for facility needs, utilities, workforce, wages and accessibility to air travel. The city also presented a smart tax rebate program designed to attract companies to its urban renewal areas.
Twist Bio is also bullish on Oregon. Twist’s CEO Emily Leproust was quoted earlier this year, “We want to be good citizens of the ecosystem, to generate employment and taxes so that the state of Oregon and the country benefits from the innovation of Twist.”
Adam Blackwell at Molecular Testing Labs tells the story of how his company launched and now thrives, without any venture capital investment. “We have bootstrapped all of it” he says of the Vancouver, Washington-based startup. MTL – also a university spinout from OHSU – works with traditional and telehealth clinics, research universities and state health departments to provide diagnostics, surveillance, validation, logistics, research and development, including manufacturing collection kits for samples.
Says panelist Blackwell, “For our young startup companies, I’ve been there, I’ve been in those shoes.”
Blackwell added his company launched and it was a slow process, but then grew through the Covid pandemic and continues to increase its test volume.
Bitting responded, “Here in Oregon, it is very culturally similar to our South San Francisco site. We were looking for that, since members of our executive team work from Oregon, from Montana and elsewhere. Also, we get access to universities here. We wanted the spirit of innovation.”
Bitting added there were other pluses in Twist Bio’s decision to open up a production house here. She cited the affordability and local amenities of Wilsonville for employees. She cited access to water and other operational needs such as waste removal. And, she credited the strong partnership with Oregon Bio as a factor in the decision.
What are the needs of these biotech companies at present?
Beaudet called out the ongoing need for lab and for growth spaces. “And we need more suppliers. And talent. I need more middle-level management talent; we have grown much of our own people, but we need more people with experience doing things in biotech, we can reach out to our community but what has stayed constant is having a critical mass of biotechs. Honestly one of the best sources of biotech-trained people is to get them from other biotechs – having that transference of talent. As I look toward the future and anything else I need, it will get easier as we continue to amass more biotechs.”
He added, “Funding has gotten easier for biotechs in Oregon because there are more biotech [companies] in Oregon.”
Bitting added Twist Bio’s top need “is our request for an international shipper in Oregon. We have very limited, local options. Currently we have to ship orders to San Francisco then ship from there, which causes delay and extra work.”
Moderator Layton added that bio has become an important sector in Oregon. “It does great things; it produces great jobs.” The next question asked was what about the unevenness of venture capital flowing around and into Oregon: How can we position the biotech sector more favorably to take advantage of VC opportunities?
Beaudet responded, “In the seed fund side, there has been a lot of movement. There have been important players who have helped us along the way, such as University of Oregon, ONAMI and Portland Seed Fund. They have been critical to our growth. What we need to do is work together and with entities such as Launch Oregon, to show VCs that Oregon is here and has bio. We can do this to make sure everyone knows Oregon has bio.”
Bitting added that Twist Bioscience is “already raising the visibility of this area (and the industry) as we are bonding together as a group. The difference could be elevating those seed funds. A rising tide raises all ships.”
Blackwell noted the talent search continues, “It has taken me a year or more sometimes to find the right talent, but we’re seeing improvement. More people are moving here, in fact, more people with science backgrounds are moving into biotechnology jobs.”