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Spokane Life Sciences Aspirations? Aim For Utah, Not Seattle, Says WSU Professor

Courtesy of WSU Health Sciences Spokane

As Spokane has developed its health sciences education infrastructure, business leaders have hoped there will be some economic benefit to the region.

They’ve looked to Seattle and San Francisco as models for what might happen here. But even as health-related academic programs have been expanded in the University District, the entrepreneurial culture has been slow to develop.

A new project announced last week by WSU is the latest attempt to provide a spark. The university announced a new life sciences business incubator that aims to help start-up companies.

Forget Seattle and its reputation as a life sciences hub as a model for what could happen in Spokane. W-S-U Professor Glenn Prestwich has his eye on Utah "because Salt Lake City has just exploded with life sciences, especially medical device companies," he said. "Salt Lake City was initially a fly-over state. It was initially a place where things got started and then always moved away from.”

Now, he says, Utah is one of the most active areas in the nation for life sciences, a place with a cluster of strong companies.

Prestwich says it makes sense for Spokane and the Inland Northwest to aim for that because they can’t compete with the giants, the Seattles and Bostons of the world.

“You can build a 150-person biotechnology company, just like you can build a 700-person pharmaceutical manufacturing company like Jubiliant Hollister Stier, so we’re aiming for that mid-size level biotechnology company. Those are pretty robust companies and they can get up to be hundreds to a thousand employees and will stay in a place like this," he said.

He says Spokane needs more of that.

Prestwich and the university are creating the Spinout Space in Spokane incubator, bankrolled in part by a $250,000 grant from Bank of America. The incubator will be headquartered in a building on the WSU Spokane campus.

“It’s clear that if we’re going to be incubating companies and maintaining a robust pipeline of companies spinning out of the university or the community, we need to have a place for them to graduate too. We don’t want them all going to Seattle. We don’t want them leaking down to San Francisco or LaJolla and we don’t want them going to New York or Chicago," Prestwich said.

He says Spokane is off and running. He says he’s been working with WSU researchers on a variety of small companies. When asked for specifics, he ticks off a long list: products that detect cancer and autism, that focus on Alzheimers’ and Parkinson’s diseases, development of pharmaceuticals.

“We’ve got a student start-up that’s making IV lines in the OR safer and training nurses how to do that. We have another student company out of Pullman that’s going to be setting up shop in Spokane shortly to offer improved mobility and sleep comfort to patients that are quadra- or paraplegic and can’t move on their own," he said. 

"These are just a few examples of stuff that was either in Pullman or Spokane already that just needed to have the faculty members handheld a little bit and brought along to understand that you don’t have to do it yourself. It takes a village. You can have people like myself or other entrepreneurs, other faculty, who have started companies walk you through this and help you get the company incorporated, get the website up.”

Prestwich says while the incubator is based in Spokane, it will also help WSU faculty around the state. He says it also has cooperative agreements with universities in Idaho and Montana to expand places where WSU technologies could be deployed.