By M.L. Dehm SCBJ Freelance Writer
BOTHELL — A large portion of Washington’s economic base is supported by a growing life sciences and biotechnology industry. That’s news for Snohomish County, where biotechnology firms abound.
Biotechnology is an ever-evolving field that’s poised to grow, thanks to worldwide demand. Developing countries are upgrading their health-care systems with products developed and built in Washington state.
A recent report from the Washington Research Council states that the number of life science-related jobs in the state has grown significantly since 2008, with about 33,500 workers directly employed in the life-science industry and 57,000 more jobs in support of that field.
Most of these jobs are located near the I-5 corridor, with a good portion centered in the Bothell-Canyon Park area.
“Snohomish County is the third largest biotech hub in the state,” said Conrad Smits, senior vice president for Philips Healthcare in Bothell. “Seattle is number one, Redmond is two and we’re number three.”
Headquartered in the Netherlands, Philips maintains two major locations in Western Washington and employs eight percent of the total life science workers in the state.
Snohomish County is attractive for firms who find space in Seattle’s South Lake Union or Redmond biotech hubs at a premium, while their employees who live here appreciate the lower cost of living and easier commute times.
The Canyon Park hub has developed steadily over the past two decades. Randy Hamlin, vice president of research and development at Philips, believes much of it may date back to the area being home to Advanced Technology Laboratories — a company that had a large presence in Bothell for a number of years.
“There are a fair amount of ultrasound companies in the area that, if you trace back their genealogies, came from former ATL folks who had moved on into other things,” he said.
In 1998, Philips Healthcare acquired ATL Ultrasound and headquartered its own ultrasound manufacturing and sales operation in ATL’s Bothell location. Virtually all of the ultrasound products that Philips makes for its global market are manufactured and tested there.
Bothell also serves as Philips’ North American headquarters for Global Sales and Service and is a new home for the company’s Sonicare oral healthcare products that came to them with the acquisition of locally based Optiva Corp.
Something that Philips executives believe makes the region desirable for biotechnology and life-sciences firms is the proximity to the University of Washington. Projects between companies and the university have created beneficial partnerships.
At the annual Governor’s Life Science Summit in Bellevue in November 2011, UW President Michael Young said the university spends $1 billion of its $1.5 billion in research funding on health-science research. Much of this research eventually benefits the local biotechnology industry.
There also is a steady stream of talent being developed at local universities. Companies can take their pick of top students and graduates find great opportunities without leaving the area.
“People can develop here,” Smits said. “They don’t have to move out of the area to continue their career.”
For example, there are about 20 companies in the area that are tied to ultrasound technology. All are said to have some link with ATL, Snohomish County’s original ultrasound firm. Someone seeking employment opportunities in this specialty field wouldn’t have to look far.
Philips North America alone employs nearly 2,000 people in the Puget Sound area. About 900 of those are involved in the manufacturing side of the business. Many stay for a number of years, Hamlin said, because they know the firm is willing to invest in them.
Each manufacturing employee takes weeks to train. Josef Bamert, head of Philips’ operations and supply chain, said that there is an emphasis on making sure each employee knows what it is they’re manufacturing and how that product relates to their own personal health care.
“There is a real human reason as to why we come to work each day,” he said.
Perhaps no Philips employee knows this better than manufacturing supervisor Zach Perez, a 20-year Navy veteran who had volunteered to support the Army in an 11-month mission in Afghanistan. Perez was in a hot zone. The medical facility was simply a series of tents. The nearest hospital was far away, but the hot-zone facility had Philips products.
“Medical equipment is vital there because it allows the doctors to make fast decisions,” Perez said. “I didn’t particularly notice who made the products. I didn’t know then that I would be someday working for Philips.”
But he did notice that Philips had sent a software quality engineer to Afghanistan to follow up on the equipment. That so impressed him that he remembered the Philips name when he returned to the U.S. and was ready for a civilian job.
Perez is now proud to be part of a company that has ultrasound machines and automated external defibrillators on the battlefields. There are also 25 Philips-manufactured CT scan units and three MRI systems saving lives in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Products that are manufactured in Bothell aren’t just needed in war zones. Demand from developing countries was a hot topic at the recent life sciences summit in Bellevue. Smits spoke there on the importance of helping Washington stay viable in the global medical-device market.
Emerging countries want quality products that have cutting edge innovations but are well priced and a good value for their investment. In other words, solid technology without frills that might drive up cost.
Philips’ Bothell facility manufactures eight different ultrasound products — some specifically designed for those developing markets. Others, laptop-size and portable, are ideal for emergency situations and battlefield environments. Then there are cutting-edge ultrasound units for hospitals that can be used in multiple applications.
Over the past six years, Philips adopted many lean manufacturing processes to improve efficiency and maximize their existing manufacturing space. In 2011, this lean model generated more than 100 tours from interested companies and individuals. Philips also has been exemplified as a lean manufacturing model for UW students.
On the web
Learn more about Philips at www.usa.philips.com.
Learn about other Snohomish County biotechnology companies from the Washington Biotechnology &Biomedical Association’s website, www.washbio.org.