Healthy Outlook

Photo: J.T. MacMillan

COVID-19 is expected to accelerate the growth of the bioscience sector in the state.  

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The race to develop COVID-19 vaccines, therapies and diagnostics has spurred strong growth in the life-sciences sector. Portland and other areas of the state are emerging as hubs for bioscience companies.

Portland was the fastest-growing market for life-sciences employment and research and development between 2016 and 2019. The recent move by Twist Bioscience, a Bay Area biotech company, to open a second facility in Wilsonville is likely to attract more companies to the area.

Liisa Bozinovic, executive director of the Oregon Bioscience Association, gives her take on what is behind the state’s popularity as a center for bioscience development and what barriers there are to investment.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How would you describe the growth potential for bioscience in Oregon?

We have long been considered a flyover state. There is a lot of activity in California; Seattle has a big market. Portland is really now just starting to be recognized. We have great academic institutions that are spawning technology and research; we have a great talent pool; we have anchor companies like Genentech that decided to come here some years ago; and now others are starting to recognize this area.

Twist Bioscience is a great example. We worked with Greater Portland Inc on the Twist project. They were looking at other markets to add a second site to their current operations in the Bay Area. Their new facility will be in Wilsonville. We worked hard to make sure they had an understanding of our talent pool, of the legislative environment, of the incentives. We helped them find a physical space. Greater Portland Inc has now more life-science projects in their pipeline than ever before.

To what extent will Twist Bioscience’s decision to expand in Oregon open the floodgates for more life-science companies to move here?

We are building toward that critical mass of companies that will allow us to grow that much faster — both by attracting companies from out of the region to move to Oregon, as well as by making it easier for companies to justify continuing to grow here. When you have companies like Twist and others moving in and making investments in the region, investors are more likely to keep their money invested in these companies.

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Where in the state is the growth of private bioscience companies the fastest?

There are multiple areas. Certainly in the Greater Portland area. In Bend there is a healthy life-science cluster. Lonza just announced that they will invest a significant amount of money in their Bend facility. Seran Bioscience just announced some investment. Rezolute is also in Bend.

The University of Oregon is partnering with the industry in Eugene to make sure the technologies and the work being done at the university has a place to grow in that region. There is also a small pocket of life-science activity in Medford in Southern Oregon.

What impact has the COVID-19 pandemic had on growth in the bioscience sector?

We have been on the forefront of the pandemic solution as a lot of companies shifted to COVID-19-specific solutions. We have a company called Enviral Tech in Eugene, which was born out of the pandemic to do COVID-19 testing on surfaces. Our industry is nimble — you saw that play out with Operation Warp Speed. At the local level, many companies pivoted — whether that was manufacturing PPE or diagnostics or working on vaccines or therapeutics. The growth will continue post-pandemic. COVID will serve to accelerate our growth once we come out of it.

COVID-19 vaccines were developed in a much shorter time frame than thought possible. To what extent will it spur the industry to develop products faster?

That is at the forefront of the conversation. AbSci is a company that started in Oregon. It moved its headquarters to Vancouver, but it employs a lot of Oregonians. Their whole business model is built on shortening the time for drug delivery. Companies like APDM Wearable Technologies, which is in the Portland State Business Accelerator, were purchased by ERT earlier this year. ERT is another digital technology that is helping to speed up clinical trials. From all aspects of the process, companies will look more and more at ways to do this better and faster. Operation Warp Speed was a great precedent.

What is the biggest barrier to growth of the sector in Oregon?

From my lens of coming from California, companies need more wet-lab space to operate. We have a great resource in OTRADI [Oregon Translational Research and Development Institute] and the Oregon Bioscience Incubator, where companies can get their first start. They have labs and space available.

When it is time for companies to move out of that incubator and into their own space, there has not been that type of space available for them. There is some development right now to help solve that.

How diverse is the life-sciences sector compared with other sectors?

We looked at how diverse we are: 47% of people in bioscience development are women, 22% are minorities. Anecdotally, that is higher than in the tech sector. We recognize there is always room for improvement. We put a small group together of company leaders who were interested in moving the needle on this. Genentech has been a guide for us as an example of a company that has employee resource groups that work on the equity and inclusion piece.

Has COVID accelerated the conversation about the need for more diversity in bioscience?

From a health-disparity perspective, for sure. The Black Lives Matter movement had that health-disparity lens. COVID really shined a light on health disparity. That conversation then morphed into workforce.

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