The stage is set for life science industry to expand in county

On the second floor of PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center, in the Surgical Services suite, is a new state of the art surgical robot.

The new team member, known as the da Vinci Xi Surgical Robotic System was acquired in the Fall of 2019 and goes live in the first week of February.

The robotic equipment signifies an evolving life sciences and biotechnology industry in Washington that extends its reach to Whatcom County.

“PeaceHealth has been great in supporting the advancement of technology we have in the operating room because we want to keep our community local and get patients back on their feet quicker, post-surgery,” director of perioperative and procedural services, MHA, BSN, CNOR, Karla Veum said.

The da Vinci Xi System was made in Silicon Valley and costs nearly $1 million. It allows for minimally invasive alternatives to both open surgery and laparoscopy.

With a surgeon seated at a nearby console and using advanced 3D viewing capabilities, the system relays the surgeon’s hand movements to the robotic instruments with precise control. The robot eliminates the need to make large incisions to accommodate the surgeon’s hand.

PeaceHealth has also been working to add additional operating rooms that will incorporate more technology such as advanced imaging components.

“We are seeing a lot more partnership between the IT components and surgery,” Veum said. “I don’t know what the future holds but I am curious to see for myself.”

The new robotics at PeaceHealth and expansion of high tech operating rooms are just one piece of a growing life science industry in Whatcom County.

There are 15 life science companies in Whatcom County; seven in Bellingham, four in Ferndale, two in Blaine and two in Point Roberts. According to Life Science Washington, there are more than 1,100 life science companies throughout 110 cities in the state. In the past decade, the life science industry has experienced a 13 percent boost in employment throughout the state.

“Bellingham is positioned in a very interesting location because it is not that far from Vancouver, BC where there is quite a bit of research going on; and Everett which has a lot of potential on the medical device side due to the skill sets in computer engineering and computer science affiliated with the aerospace industry,” CEO of Life Science Washington, Leslie Alexandre said.

One of the reasons cited by Alexandre, for the industry’s growth is the high volume and fast pace that innovative research is coming out of Wahington’s institutions like Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, Allen Institute and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

A second reason is that companies in the state are maturing and therefore hiring more employees in a wide range of positions; from entry-level manufacturing to the doctors required for large clinical research projects, Alexandre added.

“This is a state that has produced well above its weight in terms of innovation and high-risk discovery,” Alexandre said.”A lot of people don’t realize the first bone marrow transplant ever done was at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and devices like the modern ultrasound got its start in Seattle.”

“We are also seeing growth in manufacturing which was not typically the case for the industry in Washington,” she added.

Sam Rice weighing product under a laminar flow hood. (Mathew Roland/BBJ)
Sam Rice weighing product under a laminar flow hood. (Mathew Roland/BBJ)

Some of that growth can be seen in Toku-E, which manufactures antimicrobial products for testing and new drug development in Bellingham. The company has begun to lay the foundation for its new location that will upgrade its space from 8,000 sqft to 15,000 sqft.

Upgrades also include temperature-controlled storage and more production and office space. The expansion will bring additional employees, Owner of Toku-E, Helena Ouyang said.

The company was started in 2000 and has multiple sites; one in Singapore and one in Belgium. While the other sites focus on research and development, the new site, located in the Irongate neighborhood, will focus on manufacturing and shipping the product globally.

“From Seattle to Vancouver there are so many academic institutions and biotech companies that it creates a good synergy cluster and we can draw on Western Washington University for employees,” Ouyang said.

The growth and expansion in the industry haven’t come without a set of challenges. In Whatcom County the increased cost of living proposes a challenge for Toku-E, Ouyang said.

“We have to maintain an innovative product instead of a general commodity product to make a good profit margin and keep our business here,” Ouyang said.

Owner of Toku-E, Helena Ouyang at the construction site of their new facility. (Mathew Roland/BBJ)
Owner of Toku-E, Helena Ouyang at the construction site of their new facility. (Mathew Roland/BBJ)

The problem of employee retention at companies like Toku-E is echoed across the industry statewide, nationally and globally. “A lot of young people use Toku-E as a start in the biotech industry and then hop to other larger companies,” Ouyang said.

“We are probably in one of the most globally competitive industries and we are growing so incredibly fast that keeping up in terms of well-prepared workers is a challenge,” Alexandre added.

Additional challenges include raising venture capital and gaining visibility for an industry that has played an important role in the state’s economy for decades.

Sometimes people forget how important the innovative work of our companies is to the economy and human health, Alexandre said.

“It really is a multitude of different organizations that are working toward the same goal which is a robust life science economy,” Alexandre said.


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