The long death rattle at once high-flying Dendreon Corp. made this week's announcement of its likely demise less of a shock to Washington's biotech industry than last month's sudden-death announcement for Amgen's Seattle presence, but make no mistake that it represents another blow to the sector.
The departure of Amgen from Seattle by year end is due to its need to amass more cash for its continued growth and quest for new drugs while the potential demise of Dendreon is due to the fact its only drug is no longer competitive.
Dendreon, which makes the prostate-cancer drug Provenge, nearly fell off the stock-price landscape when it announced that it wouldn't be able to meet the $620 in convertible notes due to be paid in January and said the steps it was considering would leave shareholders with worthless paper. It's also likely to leave its workforce jobless.
Regardless of the causes, the job-loss result is the same for the Seattle area.
With Amgen eliminating 600 jobs in Seattle and 60 at its Bothell manufacturing plant, the demise of dendreon, which has more than 700 employees, may leave as many as 1,200 from the biotech industry out of work, possibly the most ever at one time looking for new positions.
For those who see opportunity in adversity, there is the view that this may represent an ideal time for the area's numerous biotech startups to corral some talent that would otherwise be beyond their possible reach.
The idea is that some of those biotech startups may be appealing enough to prompt some of the out-of-work talent to come on board for stock and the promise of future executive roles.
Some of the startups are at least seeking to reach out to see if such interest might be ferreted out on their behalf. And certainly there are some enthusiasm-inducing startups in the biotech space.
Historically, the Seattle biotech community has been a self-sustaining ecosystem," observes Melanie Kitzan, one of this area's most respected patent attorneys who worked with a number of small companies in the biotech space for several law firms before becoming a manager at Intellectual Ventures.
"Startups are bought by big pharma and, in some cases, the local shops are shuttered, which provides for a re-seeding of those biotech folks into new startups and the cycle continues," she added.
"There is some fear that without a big pharma anchor in the area anymore, with the closing of Amgen's facilities in Seattle, that the biotech community could decline, but it could also be seen as opening new fertile ground of great talent to start the next generation of Seattle start-ups," Kitzan suggested.
But James Bianco, founder and CEO of publicly traded Cell Therapeutics Inc., thinks it would be "unusual" if some of the exiting scientists and others at Amgen or Dendreon opted to join startups for stock and future roles.
"The critical factor for biotech employees is whether or not there is a safety net in the community, meaning a wide selection of other biotech companies that could be or are hiring," Bianco said.
"That is why it is difficult to recruit in this sector in the NW and we lose many good candidates to San Francisco or San Diego.," he added. "As such, after being laid off by the largest biotech company, it would be highly unlikely they would have risk tolerance for a startup let alone in the Noethwest."
He also suggested that "Amgen didn't likely give more than the traditional payouts, which would probably be 3-6 months on average."
Observers point out that Dendreon doesn't even have a product to sell, but merely a $93,000 process by which the body's immune system is trained to attack cancer cells and one industry executive noted in the period of time since Provenge was approved, two other major advancements were approved for metatastic protate cancer, both pills rather than a pricey process.
"Their process will be deemed not worthy of continuing commercialization," the executive said, nothing that Dendreon has been unsuccessfully looking for a buyer for more than a year.
Whether the displaced biotech employees of the two firms opt to pursue careers in more fertile biotech infrastructures like the Bay Area, San Diego or Boston, or wish to remain here badly enough to pursue opportunity at one of the small startups remains to be determined.
But their decisions could play a key role in whether the future stars of biotech may yet emerge here because of the marriage of promising innovation with experienced scientists and executives.
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