Early on a Tuesday in July, Amgen research technician Justin Hare received an email for a “last-minute, all-staff meeting.” Every employee in the biotech firm’s Seattle and Bothell campuses got the same alert.
“We knew at that point,” he says. It was bad news.
By the end of 2015, Hare and the rest of his Puget Sound colleagues—660 in total—would be out of a job as Amgen closed all its research and development operations in Seattle, leaving the area for good.
What does the departure of the region’s single largest company of its kind mean? Biotech and life sciences, after all, constitute our state’s fifth largest industry. (Think fabricated molecules that target cancer cells or the fitness tracker Nike+ FuelBand, developed by Seattle-based Synapse, or Immunex-developed arthritis drug Enbrel.)
“This is the second large biotech layoff I’ve been involved in,” says Hare, who’s previously worked at Icos, which following a merger let go of 300 workers in 2006 and 2007. (He’s also a part-time music producer who has worked with local hip-hop group the Physics.) “Seattle doesn’t seem to be the biotech hub that we all once hoped it would be. I don’t think we have the infrastructure in place to absorb all of those people.”
Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center laid off about 3 percent of its workforce in 2009, and 145 workers were let go when Dendreon slashed jobs in 2012.
Plus, there’s a decision in Olympia which could hinder future growth: More than 370 companies in Washington have claimed a biotech tax credit—in place since 1994 and extended once in 2004—that is due to sunset at the end of the year. If the state can’t continue to court new business, that could be more troublesome than the disappearance of a major employer.
“It’s a big deal,” explains Chris Rivera, president and CEO of the Washington Biotechnology and Biomedical Association. The impending expiration of the credit affects small startups and large life sciences companies that do research and development and take the business and occupation tax break.
Introduced as part of a much-debated supplemental budget, the extension of the credit received bipartisan support in the House and Senate. But due to the extreme belt tightening of the 2015 budget, the credit didn’t make it out of the House and will expire on January 1. Lobbyists and life sciences professionals are currently looking to extend it into the next session.
Still, Rivera claims that Amgen’s departure isn’t a sign of impending biotech apocalypse.
“The Amgen employees haven’t even been laid off yet, and already I’ve had a half a dozen companies reach out to me to ask, ‘How do I get those people?’ ” says Rivera. “There were roughly 70 [biotech] transactions in the state last year, and a projected $760 million in resources coming into the state. That’s a lot of jobs.”
Paul Allen’s Allen Institute for Brain Science, which this year landed a $3.4 million grant for Alzheimer’s research, recently decided to expand from Fremont to South Lake Union. “Just think about what the South Lake Union neighborhood looked like 15 years ago. It has since been transformed into a bustling biotech/biomed corridor,” says CEO Allan Jones. “Within a four-block radius, there are at least a dozen other bio-science entities.” The expansion will provide close to 200 more jobs.
Huge international players like Juno Therapeutics and Celgene have plans to expand and continue hiring. In July, Accelerator Corporation announced it had landed $51.1 million, which it would use in part to expand to Seattle.
Employees will leave Amgen in a trickle over the next year and look for new jobs, but Justin Hare’s outlook isn’t rosy.
“People move around a lot. A lot of these companies close. So the general consensus is that Seattle is not a biotech hub,” he says, noting that he’s currently working on “two different resumes.” One angles for a creative position that has nothing to do with pharmaceuticals or surgical devices, leaning on his hip-hop roots. The other resume is biotech based, but he says “I’m not placing a lot of faith in that.”