The U.S. state of Washington, in the Pacific Northwest, was once the epicentre of the information-technology world, thanks to Microsoft and its founder, Seattle-born Bill Gates — until the dotcom boom sent investors down the coast to Silicon Valley.
Now, Gates and other high-profile Microsoft alumni, along with other wealthy donors, are elevating the state as a major player in another sector: global health.
One survey, from the Washington Global Health Alliance (WGHA), an industry body that encourages collaboration between global-health organizations in the state, revealed that 207 local bodies see some of their activities as pertaining to global health. Those groups provide a diverse array of job opportunities in all aspects of the sector. “In Washington state, we have organizations that do everything from lab-based research, vaccines, diagnostics, data collection, service delivery, disaster response, down to last-mile logistics,” says Dena Morris, president and chief executive of WGHA. “Everything from beginning to end, there’s someone in the state working on it.”
Nathan Myhrvold was at Microsoft from 1986 to 2000, becoming the company’s chief technology officer in 1996. In 2000, he started the speculative patent firm Intellectual Ventures, based in Bellevue; this now has its own global-health branch, Global Good, which was set up with funding from Gates in 2012. Myhrvold says that the state has a range of specialist enterprises that make it particularly attractive to those involved in this sort of work. “The Seattle area is the Silicon Valley of saving the world,” he says.
In 2000, Gates established the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, which has been the most significant contributor to the state’s global-health efforts. It has launched and funded several institutes and departments, both at the University of Washington, in Seattle, and at Washington State University, in Pullman – the state’s two largest higher education centres – as well as funding global health organizations based in the area.
In 2015, the foundation made US$4.1 billion in grants available globally. It estimates that, in the same year, it generated $1.5 billion in local economic activity, including some $340 million in direct grants to Washington-based research groups. Much of that money goes to the Seattle-based non-profit organization Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH) and the University of Washington – both with a history of studying and fighting infectious diseases.