Executive Q+A: Boosting Biotech
Leslie Alexandre’s mission at Life Science Washington is truly a matter of life and death.
| FROM THE PRINT EDITION |
Leslie Alexandre, whose leadership of the state-funded North Carolina Biotechnology Center helped strengthen that state’s life sciences sector, hopes to revitalize Washington’s biotech sector as CEO and president of Life Science Washington, an industry trade organization formerly known as the Washington Biotechnology & Biomedical Association. Alexandre, a 30-year veteran of the life science and health care industries, holds a master’s degree in public health and a doctorate in public health from UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health.
EARLY LIFE: I was born in Vancouver, Washington, and raised in the Bay Area. Dad taught English and journalism; my mom taught second grade. I got a Ph.D. from the UCLA School of Public Health. My dad raised me to believe I could accomplish anything if I was of high integrity, worked hard and treated all people as we wished to be treated. My parents encouraged me to be independent and not afraid to take risks. My first full-time job after college was working at Planned Parenthood as a receptionist and public affairs assistant.
PROUDEST ACHIEVEMENT: I have never married but I am proud of the strong relationships I have with each of my four nieces and nephews. Professionally, I am most proud of the work I did at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center from 2002 to 2007. In 2003, at the request of the governor, I led the development of a strategic plan for growing the biotech sector that led directly to tens of millions of dollars of new state investment in biotechnology research, development, commercialization, education and workforce training and thousands of new, high-paying jobs.
NORTH CAROLINA: The state has a strong commitment to developing the life sciences sector because the jobs pay phenomenally well, from entry-level technicians to the scientists. When the industry said it needed more trained workers, the state committed $65 million to workforce training. We created a grant program to support translational research. We also offered loans to entrepreneurs that had to be matched by private investors. The smallest was $15,000; the biggest was $250,000. The state also built a pilot scale biomanufacturing facility and worked with six community colleges to add training programs in key areas. Such efforts helped us recruit Merck & Co. to build a $1 billion pharmaceutical facility in the state.
LIFE SCIENCE WASHINGTON: We have taken on a bigger role here in building the [biotech] ecosystem than in the typical industry trade organization. For example, we promote commercialization [of biotech research] by providing free consultation to entrepreneurs. We also have a formalized team-mentoring program to help startups and we provide support to WINGS, a nonprofit angel network.
WASHINGTON: This state has not been consistent in its support for the industry. Recently, the state let expire its research and development tax incentive program. It also stopped funding the Life Science Discovery Fund [which used tobacco settlement money to invest in promising health research]. That has left business leaders questioning Washington’s commitment to the biotech sector.
STRATEGY: If we want to engage our legislators, we can’t design strategies that only benefit the area with the lowest level of unemployment [such as Seattle]. Life science innovation is essential to the most important industries throughout the state, including agriculture, animal and human health, forestry and even aerospace — think of biofuel-powered jets. We need to figure out how we can leverage research to help each sector. Spokane is already rocking with the new [WSU] med school. There’s an extensive amount of agricultural research we need to focus on. What is being done to help the timber industry develop hardier trees? How do you build on Pullman’s strength in animal health?
OPPORTUNITY: The challenge is that while the state has one of the strongest research bases in the country, we lack an equivalent base of strong companies that can translate that research into new devices, cures, therapies or cost-competitive global health solutions. To help increase the number of healthy companies in our state, we need workforce-training programs to prepare technical workers for biotech manufacturing and other jobs. Governor [Jay] Inslee has put together a workforce-training group to look at what we need to do in this area.
THE FUTURE: Washington has the potential to be one of the premier locations in the world for life science discovery and economic development, but to do that, we have to leverage the enormous federal investment in life sciences research here with industry partnerships. Rick Klausner, who went up to Alaska and came back with $125 million to help [biotech startup] Juno Therapeutics get off the ground, could have put Juno anywhere in the country — Mayor Bill de Blasio tried to lure Juno to New York — but Klausner decided Fred Hutch [Cancer Research Center] was the strongest partner. Klausner believes cell therapy will be able to cure cancer and says Washington can be the place for this R&D to take place. We also need to create more partnerships that leverage our strengths in the life sciences, software, engineering and global health to address some of the biggest challenges facing humanity, such as environmental sustainability and global hunger.
TAKE 5: Get to Know Leslie Alexandre
I ADMIRE: Margaret Sanger, the founder of Planned Parenthood. Also, current and past Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Sandra Day O’Connor, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
FAVORITE WASHINGTON SPOT: “I have only been to a few places, but given how much I enjoy good wine, I suspect that both Woodinville and Walla Walla are going to emerge as favorite places to visit!”
BOOK LIST: “I just finished Abraham Varghese’s Cutting for Stone, which is a phenomenal read.”
HOBBIES: “I am an avid traveler, and love visiting new locales around the world. On a more regular basis, I enjoy hiking, exploring consignment stores and antique shops, and indulging in the great food our region has to offer.”
CONTENTMENT: “Nothing is better than just hanging out with friends and family, cooking a good meal and drinking some good wine.”