There’s no denying that our area is experiencing a tremendous boom. One attempt at traveling along bustling Interstate 405 on a weekday morning or one perusal through available (or lack thereof) home listings will provide all the proof you need. And just north of Kirkland, straddling King and Snohomish counties, the riverfront, 13-square-mile city of Bothell is thriving, too, although quietly and in its own way.

The city of 45,000 counts University of Washington Bothell and Cascadia College as two notable employers. Everyone may know about those places, but how many know about Bothell’s largest industry by far? It’s biotech, a sector that dominates the city’s overall job market and employs more than 25,000 individuals.

“Bothell is kind of an unsung hub for biology technology in the greater Seattle area.”

“Bothell is kind of an unsung hub for biology technology in the greater Seattle area,” said Anne Lodge, president and co-founder of Bothell-based Astarte Biologics, a company that delivers curated white blood cells to pharmaceutical companies and other biotech firms. “Right now, there is a lot of interest in (newer neighborhoods outside of Bothell). But before that got going, there was Canyon Park (in Bothell). Seattle Genetics got its start there, and there’s always been biotech quietly toiling away here.”

Since the early 1990s, and in some cases even earlier, biomedical companies — also known as life science companies — have been growing and thriving in the city. According to Life Science Washington’s economic impact report, Washington state is home to close to 900 life science companies, more than 50 of which are located in Bothell. This number grows exponentially when accounting for life science companies that were sold, merged, or moved out of state.

What makes Bothell so attractive to life science companies like Astarte and others? We spoke to life science founders, innovators, and even a serial entrepreneur, to find out.

A Medical Magnet

Perhaps the greatest catalyst for life science growth in Bothell is history: Bothell is where biotech always has been.

“I’ve been (working) in the ultrasound industry for more than 25 years in Bothell,” said Jens Quistgaard, CEO of Mirabilis Medical. Quistgaard started his career in the early 1990s at Advanced Technology Laboratories. “During that time, the Seattle area, and in particular Bothell, has kind of been known as the ultrasound capital of the universe.”

“I’ve been (working) in the ultrasound industry for more than 25 years in Bothell. During that time, the Seattle area, and in particular Bothell, has kind of been known as the ultrasound capital of the universe.”

Advanced Tech began as a manufacturer of navigation systems for boats in the 1960s, Quistgaard explained, before it became one of the first companies to license some Doppler ultrasound technology, as well as one of the first biotech pioneers in Bothell.

“Through the ’70s and ’80s, (Advanced Tech) grew quite a bit. By the time I joined (the company), and depending on who you talked to, (the company was) either the No. 1 or No. 2 diagnostic ultrasound company in the world,” Quistgaard said.

Over time, many Bothell life science employees got their start with Advanced Technical Laboratories, and Quistgaard rocketed through the ranks to become the company’s chief scientist before the company was sold to Phillips Ultrasound. Phillips retained a large campus in Bothell’s Canyon Park, while Quistgaard was already on to his first of many ultrasound-related ventures, of which Advanced Tech had been a founding contributor.

A serial entrepreneur, Quistgaard co-founded a string of diagnostic ultrasound companies, including SonoSite, which developed hand-carried ultrasound devices useful to first responders and medical professionals working in developing countries, refugee camps, and natural disaster zones. Quistgaard left SonoSite which was later sold to Fuji Film and currently employs close to 1,000 workers. Another company, Liposonix, originally founded in Quistgaard’s Bothell basement and later sold to California-based Solta Medical, used ultrasound technology to remove fat cells, previously done only through an invasive liposuction procedure, without actually performing surgery.

Jens QuistgaardToday, Quistgaard serves as the CEO to yet another ultrasound tech company that uses therapeutic ultrasound to remove uterine fibroids without surgery. All the companies Quistgaard has founded or led have been based in Bothell.

“There is, of course, a bit of inertia,” he said. “Those of us who go back a ways — even those who are more recent folks in the industry — started working at one ultrasound company out here, and maybe bought a house that is conveniently located. But this tends to be a place where there is access to a lot of talent, particularly for the ultrasound industry, and for other medical devices as well. It is certainly a very favorable environment. Bothell is a very business-friendly place to be.”

A Zone Offense

Astarte Biologics biotech company

In 2009, Washington state sanctioned several Innovation Partnership Zones (IPZs) in an effort to unite organizations with a common interest, and cluster them in specific geographical areas. For example, the Aerospace Convergence IPZ exists in Snohomish County near the Boeing plant, and the Grays Harbor Sustainable Industries IPZ is centered at the Port of Grays Harbor. Five regional organizations partnered to create the Biomedical Device IPZ, a marriage between the City of Bothell, the Snohomish County Economic Development Council, Life Science Washington, the University of Washington Bothell, and the Economic Development Council of Seattle and King County.

Under this partnership umbrella, life science companies that specifically produce medical devices can collaborate on device development, industry branding, funding, and education while networking with more than 2,800 biomedical device employees in the area.

“The initial concept was technology transfer. When you created an IPZ, you needed to have industry, you needed to have the public sector, and you needed to have a research university.”

“The initial concept was technology transfer,” said Matt Smith, chairman of the Biomedical Device IPZ (who works alongside vice chairman Quistgaard). “When you created an IPZ, you needed to have industry, you needed to have the public sector, and you needed to have a research university.”

Matt Smith

While these things were present in the Bothell IPZ from the beginning, Smith explained it wasn’t as easy as developing “the next great whiz-bang toy” that some company would immediately buy into, creating revenue and jobs.

“In reality, I don’t think that has really happened in any of the IPZs,” he said. “All these IPZs are kind of informal and volunteer-staffed, with minimal or no state funding. In any organization — whether it is not-for-profit or a social-service organization — where you’ve got volunteers running the show, they’ve got other priorities (in their lives).”

What Smith and the other members of the IPZ board have done instead may be better. The team founded a nonprofit under the umbrella of the IPZ and began creating programs that will stimulate the medical device community in new ways. Each year, for example, the group sponsors the Washington State Medical Device Summit at UW Bothell to discuss topics of interest, such as digital marketing, worldwide industry regulatory updates, and research and development advances. Moreover, informal quarterly CEO round table luncheons are held, during which local CEOs discuss respective issues and offer advice to one another.

Perhaps the most noteworthy element of the IPZ has been the Mercury Incubator. Headquartered at the Lake Washington Institute of Technology in Kirkland, the program provides new market talent a way to advance devices from concept to reality. Physical office space, access to machine shops, and mentorship from experienced CEOs are among the incubator’s greatest benefits to the medical device community in Bothell.

biotech is Bothell's biggest industry

Canyon Park vs. South Lake Union

The bulk of Bothell’s life science businesses are spread out among the city’s two sprawling business parks: Canyon Park in Snohomish County, and North Creek in King County.

These aging buildings have been home to many successful (and a few not-so-successful) life science businesses for more than 20 years. When the structures were erected, suburbs were a reprieve from the chaos of city life and the commuter lifestyle reigned supreme, and while these locations were ideal in their heyday, IPZ Chairman Smith said this is no longer the case.

“Those business parks were designed for a commuter economy when everyone lived somewhere, drove in (to the office), and maybe they brought their boxed lunch,” he said. “If they went out for lunch, they’d hop in their car and drive 15 minutes, and then come back. It’s sort of a different culture or lifestyle within the workforce today.”

Today, the industry’s young professionals are looking for livable, walkable environments that offer multi-family, mixed-use residential buildings close to major employers.

“South Lake Union is a model of what attracts the techies,” said Smith. “The apartment is just down the street, you can walk to work, and there are 20 restaurants you can go to if you want to walk to lunch or go to happy hour afterwards.”

“South Lake Union is a model of what attracts the techies. The apartment is just down the street, you can walk to work, and there are 20 restaurants you can go to if you want to walk to lunch or go to happy hour afterwards.”

South Lake Union’s appeal is so strong that some companies have shifted their manufacturing operations out of Bothell and into this Seattle neighborhood. The trend is not lost on Bothell city leaders, and Smith said movement is underway to update Canyon Park’s master plan by loosening building height restrictions to encourage developers of multifamily, mixed-use buildings to set their sites on the area.

Not everyone agrees with the proposed changes. Astarte president Lodge said Bothell’s office parks still work for her and her employees. She doesn’t want her employees to commute to South Lake Union, battle for parking, or live in more expensive neighborhoods.

“There seems to be a lot of debate around the whole South Lake Union development that there is value in having all of those businesses close together,” she said. “But if there is value in it, we’ve got that in Canyon Park, as well. There are different benefits to living in different neighborhoods. If you like city living, then (South Lake Union is) a great place to be. But it’s expensive, and we all keep seeing real estate prices continue to go up.”

Smith would like to see a common ground that pleases everyone.

“The question is, ‘How do we turn Canyon Park into something like South Lake Union, but not like South Lake Union?’” he said. “You want to maintain that Bothell ambiance, that suburban feel — it’s a compromise.”

Whatever the solution might be (educational partnerships like the IPZ, a neighborhood refresh, or simple inertia), Bothell still appears poised to attract talent to its well-established life science industry.


Elsewhere in Biotech

Bothell isn’t the only hot spot for medical innovation in the local area, there is a wealth of new technologies being tested or implemented in hospitals, clinics, and biotech firms across the Eastside and beyond.

Fighting Germs

EvergreenHealth system is taking steps to advance patient safety and quality of care by implementing a new ultraviolet technology to fight infection-causing agents in patient rooms and operating suites. The Clorox Healthcare Optimum-UV Enlight System uses ultraviolet light technology to eliminate dangerous pathogens by emitting UV-C light — the highest-energy form of ultraviolet light — in a full 360 degrees. This kills microorganisms by inactivating their DNA, rendering them harmless and unable to replicate, thereby reducing infection rates by more than 25 percent.

Angel Eye in the Sky

Parents of newborns in Overlake Medical Center’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit will now have the ability to see and talk to their babies anytime, thanks to the hospital’s installation of Angel Eye Camera systems. Each high-resolution camera includes filters for low-light situations and is mounted near the NICU bed isolette. Through HIPAA-compliant, password-protected software, parents can access the real-time video from their phone or computer when they can’t physically be with their child.

Microseed Treatment

The Swedish Cancer Institute was the first cancer institute in the United States to offer implantable microseed breast radiation therapy, and now regularly offers this service to individuals with early-stage breast cancer. This targeted breast radiation treatment is a one-time, one-hour procedure similar in design to procedures already in use for patients with prostate cancer. Women who get microseed treatment avoid many of the downfalls of traditional radiation therapy, and often return to their normal lives with significantly less downtime.

Virtual Reality and Your Body

A new University of Washington startup, Pear Med, utilizes virtual reality and augmented reality to compile various MRI and CT scans and stitch them together to form an interactive color-coded 3D model of a patient’s bones, organs, and nerves. This technology could change the way medical students learn about the body and the way doctors communicate with their patients. Moreover, this technology will help surgeons visualize the shape and structure of each patient’s anatomy prior to surgery.