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Could job losses at Amgen and Dendreon mean opportunity for talent-seeking biotech startups?

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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Chihuly gift of 12th-Man art, new challenges for cancer facilities boost Gilda's Club visibility

Renowned blown-glass artist Dale Chihuly is creating an exclamation mark for the role of the 12th Man in the Seattle Seahawks' Super Bowl victory by crafting a dozen Seahawk-color seaform pieces to be sold or auctioned to benefit Seattle Gilda's Club and its cancer-support network.


And the Seahawks will be closely involved, led by star wide receiver Golden Tate. With a grandmother who died of breast cancer, Tate quickly became a supporter of Gilda's Club after learning of its work, and then attracted his teammates to play in the annual Gilda's golf-tournament fundraiser.


The Chihuly dozen will be replicas of the blown-glass piece by Chihuly that was a key in the wager between Seattle Mayor Ed Murray and his Denver counterpart and was to be auctioned off to benefit Denver homeless in the event the Seahawks lost.


The sale of the Chihuly pieces will be the pizzazz for Gilda's club visibility this year. But visibility of a different and more lasting sort is growing within the healthcare community in the Northwest in the past couple of years because of the club's focus on the emotional impact of cancer on the sufferers and their families.


Cancer-care medical centers are coming under increasing pressure to provide services beyond the medical to the whole patient, as well as patient families. And that has opened a new door for Seattle Gilda's Club, which now has contracts with three area hospitals to provide those services, often referred to as compassionate care.


Anna Gottlieb

"We now have contracts to provide services to Overlake and Children's hospitals and the Muilticare system, which encompasses Auburn, Gig Harbor, Puyallup and Tacoma," Gottlieg noted, adding that the arrangements represent 20 percent of last year's revenue for Gilda's Club.


And the programs Gottlieb's organization is putting in place, both in the community and with the hospitals, are bringing a much broader awareness of Gilda initiatives that have been unfortunately little known to the general public until recently.


Seattle Gilda's Club was founded in 1996 by Anna Gottlieb and the doors to its building opened five years later, the first Gilda's Club in the West.


Gottlieb explains her commitment to the Gilda's cause, including weathering the years of financial struggle, by recalling that her mother had breast cancer "and no place to go, no one to talk to. I was 12 at the time and that sort of thing sticks with you."


It was the bond of both having endured their mothers' cancers that brought Dr. James Bianco, the CEO of Cell Therapeutics Inc. (CTI), to become the major business-community force behind Gilda's, including bringing business practices to the operation of the non-profit.


He had known Gottlieb from her involvement with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, where Biano had been a doctor working with Nobel Laureate Donnell Thomas before he launched CTI, which is seeking to create a range of oncology products.


Mike Kunath, A principal in the Seattle-based investment advisory firm of kunath Karren Rinne and Atkin LLC, was among those introduced to Gilda's Club by Bianco and he has helped Gottlieb with the business focus.


 "Until now Gilda's Club has been largely unknown and under loved, but that's changing," said Kunath. "Now when cancer strikes a family, the second call is likely to be to GC."


Now back to the Chihuly glass pieces. Bianco developed a close friendship in recent years with Chihuly and in a dinner conversation that included Golden Tate about an event to provide financial support for Gilda's Club, Bianco threw out the idea of doing 12 glass pieces in honor of the 12th man. Tate quickly bought into the plan, Bianco recalls.


"I asked 'what if your studio could do 12 of the Seahawk-color seaforms and announce that Golden Tate, Russell Wilson and Richard Sherman invite you to a special event?'"


He said Chihuly instantly agreed, but wanted to get the $10,000 price the seaform pieces usually go for.


"I said we needed to start the prices on them at $12,000, keeping with the 12th man theme of it all," Bianco added.


A date for the event hasn't been pinned down, but will likely be in May. They also don't yet know whether they can do an auction of any of the pieces because of uncertainties relating to use of the 12th Man beyond the Seahawks reach.


In discussing the challenges facing hospitals, Gottlieb says "Health care systems do not do a good job of assessing distress in patients and need to pay more attention to the whole patient. We can help with patient satisfaction and help medical centers keep their own patients. We can take the burden off hospitals and workplaces."


"Patients are unhappy with their care and are demanding more services," she says.


With respect to the emerging program opportunities for Gilda's, Gottlieb says "Our strongest programs are in the education arena. We have lectures, put together symposiums on all cancers, facilitate workshops and we take lectures out in the communities. We have been to Bellingham, Bremerton, and all over the South Sound."


"We run the only summer day camp in the Northwest for families living with cancer," she added. "We do camp for three weeks in the summer for kids, ages 5-12, who have a parent with cancer or have lost a parent to cancer, and we do a cancer program for the kids. We are now doing the camp in in Tacoma and will soon branch out to other locations around the State."


In addition to overtures from cancer-care hospitals elsewhere in Washington, and in Oregon, a group in Eugene has been pressing Gilda's Club to extend its presence there. And Gottlieb says she has now been in communication with cancer-care facilities beyond the Northwest.


And one program Gottlieb is hopeful of taking nationally.

"We started a writing contest for teens with cancer or who have a parent or friend with cancer," Gottlieb said. "We have collected over 1,500 essays and we have given out scholarship money, over $75,000 in the past seven years." My goal is to take this to a national level.


Looking ahead, Gottlieb suggests "Our biggest area of future growth may be in the survivorship area, which is screaming out for help. Particularly with what patients call 'lost in transition.'"


"Patients are released from care with no plans, no idea of what is next and symptoms can linger for years and years," she says.


"Cancer is now a chronic illness for many and they still need help long after diagnosis, areas where we can really step in and help with more education and address many issues, since patients need help finding their new normal and navigating their way back to work and relationships and life in general."

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