Washington-Asia Partnerships Advancing Innovation and Healthy Communities

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by Sean Connell
Members of the Washington State Life Science Business and Investment mission to China in October 2014 meet with members of the American Chamber of Commerce in China in Beijing. [Image: Trade Development Alliance of Greater Seattle]

Washington state’s economic ties with Asia have predominantly focused on natural resources, agriculture, aerospace, and information technology, but life sciences and health technology have joined these sectors as an important field connecting Washington and Asia.  This addition reflects the emergence of the greater Seattle region as a leading center of research, development, and commercialization in biotechnology and medical devices, and of global health initiatives and philanthropic organizations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, PATH, and World Vision.  It also reflects the increasing emphasis on life sciences as a priority area for Asian economies, not only to improve public health and welfare, but also for new industry growth.  The biotechnology sector is targeted as a growth engine by several major Asian economies, while demographic and lifestyle changes are rapidly altering the health care needs of people and communities across the region.

Washington State has long been a leader in health and medical technology, possessing the fifth-largest life sciences cluster in the United States, according to a report by the Miliken Institute.  The region is a global leader in biotech and ultrasound technology.  The Fred Hutchison Cancer Research Center is one of the world’s leading cancer institutions, and the University of Washington consistently ranks among the top five public universities receiving National Institute of Health awards and research funding.  The capabilities of Washington’s research institutions, medical facilities, and private sector companies have increasingly drawn the attention of Asian partners, researchers, and students. 

Investment from Asia in Washington’s life sciences sector has grown substantially in recent years.  For example, Sonosite, an ultrasound technology company located in Bothell was acquired by Fujifilm of Japan in 2012, and Olympus Respiratory of Japan acquired Spiration, a medical device manufacturer in Redmond.  Acucela, a clinical-stage ophthalmology company developing treatments for sight-threatening diseases, was started in Seattle by Dr. Ryo Kubota of Japan, and became one of the first U.S. firms to hold an IPO listing on the Tokyo Stock Exchange.  Life Science Washington (formerly the Washington State Biotechnology & Biomedical Association), an industry organization representing the state’s diverse life sciences sector, has focused extensively on China as a source of investment and for new business opportunities.  The organization has ongoing engagement with the Beijing Pharmaceutical Professional Association, and joined with the Trade Development Alliance of Greater Seattle to lead a life sciences business and study mission to Beijing and Shanghai in October 2014. Firms such as Seattle-based Rubicon Strategy Group support U.S. life sciences and health care companies to enter and develop partnerships in China and Southeast Asian markets. 

Life sciences and global health are increasingly focus areas for Washington in its engagement with Asia.  Memorandums of understanding signed between Washington and Mie Prefecture, Japan, as well as Japan at a national level, specify life sciences as an area for increasing cooperation.  Life science is one of the focus areas for the new Global Innovation Exchange program between the University of Washington and Tsinghua University in China.  The global health sector is also growing rapidly as a significant new field for Washington engagement with Asia, with the emergence of several leading and innovative global health organizations based in Seattle.  Among these, the Gates Foundation and PATH are active in China, India, Vietnam, and Myanmar, among other countries, to advance health care initiatives ranging from vaccines, HIV prevention, and tuberculosis control, to improved nutrition and sanitation.

Senior care is a growing area of attention in Asia, as Japan, Korea, and China among other countries grapple with the needs of rapidly aging populations. This is a sector in which Washington businesses have also taken a leading role.  For example, Seattle-based Columbia Pacific Management operates medical facilities in China, Vietnam, India, Indonesia, and Malaysia.  Columbia Pacific was the first foreign owned company allowed to enter China’s senior care market, and today has facilities in Shanghai, Beijing, Wuxi, Jiaxing, Ningbo, and Changzhou.  Temasek of Singapore recently made significant investments in Columbia China, while Mitsui & Co. of Japan invested in Columbia Asia, highlighting another means of increasing U.S.-Asia partnership in this burgeoning sector. 

The rapidly increasing connections between Washington and Asia related to life sciences and health care offer great potential promise, both for new partnerships and towards improving the health and livelihoods of people around the world. 

Sean Connell is a guest contributor to Asia Matters for America. He is employed by the Economic Development Alliance of Skagit County (Washington), and is a former Visiting Fellow at the East-West Center.