SLU as nascent biotech cluster

Powell, Packalen, Whittington (PPW): “Organizational and Institutional Genesis: The Emergence of High-Tech Clusters in the Life Sciences” in The Emergence of Organizations and Markets (ed. Padgett and Powell)

434: Approach study of organizations from a dynamic/process-oriented point of view: social world is littered w/ building blocks for orgs; debris can be assembled into new combinations (citing meyer and rowan, 1977). Of course in this explication I see flux between D&G’s plane of immanence and plane of organization (reminds me to think about how I’m using theory…).

Rather than only examining genesis of success stores, PPW stress that we should also be examining the unsuccessful/nascent attempts as well (PPW categorize biotech in SLU in the latter category but remark that it has shown signs of vitality…important to think about what has clustered in SLU: maybe not necessarily biotech as dedicated biotech firms (DBF) but something more computational, like UW Medicine’s work or ISB?).

435: Seek to explain a crit feature of emergence/development of biotech: geographical propinquity (read this again Amin and Thrift’s chapter “Propinquity and Flow in the City”); PPW treat cluster as “an entity that became institutionalized” (~stratified).

Three dominant biotech hubs: Boston/Cambridge, SF Bay, north San Diego County (most recent), but there was no reason that they necessarily developed in this way: timing, education institutions, government, finance…flexibility, switching, disruption are common, rather than “lock in” (435-436).

437: “In Seattle, computer technology millionaires tried to combine the research prowess of the University of Washington, with its major medical school, and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer [Research] Center to start a biotech cluster there”: Public-private initiatives to build biotech community (Harvey & Sparke on entrepreneurialism). However PPW write “But none of these areas[1] has yet to develop an interactive community of firms and public research organizations that mirrors the dynamics of the Boston, San Francisco Bay Area, and San Diego regions” (437-438).

PPW disagree with Schumpeterian creative destruction approach can capture the complexity of how these clusters form (contingency…one reason why Harvey’s dialectical approach seems insufficient; see Holland on Althusser’s minor Marxism). They count on two core factors:

  • Diversity of organizational forms (resilience, sure, but also new rules, standards, criteria for gauging success; new ties. Emergent process involves search, sense-making, and luck (see Weick 1993, Powell and Colyvas, 2008; also see Storper). Their approach downplays a “purposive, instrumental behavior of the kind invoked in agentic stories…[and draws] attention to an assembly process in the context of organizational diversity.
  • Presence of an anchor tenant: “sustains multiple principles of evaluation – in this case, world-class science, biomedical discovery, unmet medical need, or financial opportunity – and in so doing continually recombines and repurposes diverse activities” (439, evokes Foucault on genealogical method…). Opposed to idea of 800-pound gorilla that dominates scene.

439: Cross network efforts generate new potentialities; new careers, practices, ideas, organizational models congeal into institutional practices.

Origins of biotech clusters (441-442):

  • Geog propinquity
  • Gov policy: Diamond v. Chakrabarty – patent genetically modified micro-organisms; Bayh-Dole (univ research patented and licensed); Orphan Drug Act (research on rare diseases)…all led to marketization. Also NIH funding.

Four points of comparison btwn regions:

1)      organizational diversity

2)      effects of anchor tenants

3)      role of cross-domain networks

4)      sequence of network formation

444: a region’s character defined by diversity of organization, ties between orgs, institutional characteristics of central nodes; robustness increases w/ increased openness (~common).

445-450 cluster/network maps of “successful” nodes, as well as analysis (two aspects: mix of organizations and dynamism – many diverse ties).  More interested in their assessment of Seattle right now: strong magnet for biomed research (major research hospitals, med institutes, research universities) but hasn’t “developed an extensive pattern of interorganizational affiliations.” Sparse local ties (see p 454 for Seattle diagram: in 2002, there were 22 nodes and 11 of them were tied; Boston, on the other hand, had 105 (diverse) nodes w/ 73 ties). Seattle is termed a nascent cluster. 451: in Seattle, DBFs were primarily tied to each other, rather than to other nodes (finance, gov, pharma, public research, biomed suppliers). Ties types are R&D, finance, commercialization, licensing. 455: from 1996-2002 Seattle increased these ties though, “suggesting some signs of local vitality.”

460: sounds like Seattle biotech is small and isolated.

461: outcome of recombinatory process in successful region produced unanticipated landscape; “[i]n successful clusters, spillovers extended further, into the architectural, financial, legal, medical device, and biomedical supply fields that supported the burgeoning life science community” (~advanced service suppliers). A central difference that I currently see in SLU is the production of space and the curatorial role that Vulcan/DSA/City etc seem to be playing…construction, courting businesses (landing AMZN, which is “driving urbanization”), selling off assets and reinvesting…econ engine sure isn’t biotech cluster.


[1] Houston, Research Triangle in NC, Seattle

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