Bristol-Myers Squibb exec on how can Seattle grow — and keep — big biotech companies

Henrik Andersen, head of biologics development at Bristol-Myers Squibb. (GeekWire Photo / James Thorne)

Henrik Andersen, head of biologics development at Bristol-Myers Squibb, knows what it’s like to be at a hot biotech when it’s scooped up by a much larger player.

Andersen was at Seattle-based ZymoGenetics when his current employer stepped in to buy the company. He also experienced first-hand what it was like when Bristol-Myers later opted to shut down the Seattle outpost.

So when Andersen addressed an audience earlier this week in Seattle at an event hosted by The Atlantic and sponsored by Bristol-Myers Squibb, he knew the topic that would be on everyone’s mind. Bristol-Myers is in the process of acquiring Celgene, a megamerger that will have repercussions for Seattle-based Juno Therapeutics, which was bought by Celgene at the start of last year.

News of the $74 billion cash-and-stock buyout of Celgene put the Seattle biotech world on alert and introduced a new wave of uncertainty around the fate of Juno.

Andersen, who received his doctorate from the University of Washington, insisted that Seattle was part of Bristol-Myers’s global footprint.

“The talent is here,” he said. “And I think that Seattle needs to retain the talent to remain innovative.”

At the event, Andersen also offered his thoughts on the city’s strengths, and what the area needs to build and keep large health companies. Here’s more from his talk:

Talent development: Andersen stressed the need for regional leaders “to collaborate to get the right talent educated.” While he praised the large numbers of STEM graduates in the area, particularly from the UW, Andersen highlighted the need for internship programs to bring local graduates into the industry.

While at ZymoGenetics, he said that it was difficult to recruit for senior roles because there wasn’t a “critical mass” of organizations in the region.

Incentives: Andersen weighed in on something other speakers at the event called out, which was the relatively low levels of corporate incentives in Washington state compared with rival regions. “In the end, there’s all the soft values: great innovation, great people, great talent. But guess what? There’s also a finance function of [Bristol-Myers] and other companies, and they do look at things like [incentives],” Andersen said.

Institutions: Between the UW, Fred Hutch, Seattle Children’s, the Bill Melinda Gates Foundation and the Allen Institute, Seattle is awash in powerful institutions. That concentration creates “a critical mass of organizations that can help with the life sciences and help drive innovation,” Andersen said.

New money: Andersen sees an opportunity for the region’s life science industry to profit from the success of local companies, even those who have since sold. “There’s an opportunity with the money that’s been raised,” he said. “[Seattle has] probably initiated this forward momentum of innovation and the start of many more small companies. Now you just have to find the right way to invest in them. So I think that it’ll just grow from here.”

For anyone keeping tally, the Celgene acquisition will be the start of a third era for Bristol-Myers in Seattle. In the late 80s, the company acquired both Genetic Systems and Oncogen.

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