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Saturday, January 4, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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The Immunex initiative: Group aims to keep culture alive

Seattle Times business reporter

Immunex may not be dead after all.

The culture of Seattle's top biotech company was — at least officially — stamped out and replaced by a more corporate one when Amgen bought it for $10 billion last summer. Even as the buyout made many of them rich, employees mourned what they saw as a loss of the freewheeling camaraderie and brainpower Immunex represented. But instead of crying in their beer, they are trying to keep the culture alive by establishing a charitable foundation.

The 15-member founding group has set up a mission to improve human and environmental health, plus science and environmental education. It raised about $750,000 before it had a desk. It doesn't have an official name yet, but the group voted for The Immunext Foundation, with Seattle Biotech Legacy Foundation a fallback in case trademark issues become a snag. Their slogan is "Innovations for a Healthy Future."

The foundation's goals this year are to launch a $10 million endowment drive, start giving grants and do volunteer work.

"Not everybody gets to work in a job where you get to make a difference," said Linda Park, a biochemist who is the foundation's president. "At most companies that get bought out, this sort of thing doesn't happen. You don't get employees who want to carry on making a difference. But we're not going to give up and see this whole thing dissolve."

Park, who spent 18 years at Immunex, has plenty in common with other Immunoids, as they sometimes call themselves. She's nearing 50, is financially set for life but not mega-rich, and wants to give time and money to the community. She left her job — her first and only — in August.

Working for Immunex meant so much to Park that she paid $1,800 for the sign that had hung over the cafeteria door that read: "Through these doors pass the best in the business — Immunex employees."

The fond memories stem from having worked for a biotech that actually produced a breakthrough, the rheumatoid arthritis drug Enbrel.

"A lot of companies have billboards at Safeco Field," said former Immunex scientist Richard Gayle, "but not a lot of companies have ever had somebody they cured throw out the first pitch."

Proud as they are, the Immunoids concede they have a lot to learn about fund raising and doling out grants. To handle administration, they set up the charity within The Seattle Foundation, the oldest and largest community foundation in the state.

They have also turned to Barbara Dingfield, a philanthropy consultant with The Giving Practice, for help. Dingfield, who retired after a stint running corporate philanthropy at Microsoft, said many idealistic techie foundations have sprouted in the last five years aiming to mix new money with volunteerism, such as Social Venture Partners.

What's different here, she said, is a desire to keep alive a corporate culture. She believes the culture may have been fostered by years of tribulations they endured before creating a hit product, rather than the "get big fast" mentality of some tech operations.

In the end, the Immunoids ended up rich in cash and stock, but they don't have the financial muscle of a Microsoft co-founder. There were only 1,600 in Washington at the peak, but Dingfield said they have the potential to get things done.

"What's interesting is their educational background and their high level of engagement," Dingfield said. "They aren't just giving money to feel good. They want to make a difference in the health, science and environmental field and their ability to do it is unique."

This month, their work is picking up. The group set up a pair of forums on setting priorities for where to donate, how to deploy their skills, and which nonprofits they should team up with.

Once the group zeros in on concrete projects, Park said, the foundation will reach out to more former Immunoids.

The foundation is also careful to nurture friendly relations with Amgen. Ironically, the Thousand Oaks, Calif.-based biotech company may be one of the foundation's biggest boosters. It has a policy of matching 100 percent of its employees' personal charitable donations, up to $20,000 per year. Many former Immunoids have taken jobs at Amgen and plan to take advantage.

Amgen spokesman Jeff Richardson said the company is officially taking a "hands-off" approach to the foundation.

"It's an effort outside the scope of Amgen's business, so we'd be neutral on it," Richardson said.

Park said many colleagues are still in a wait-and-see mode until the effort becomes more focused. The time may be right, because many are now coming to terms with their future, she said.

"For me and others in this foundation, there's a lot of work that needs to be done that nobody's paying for," Park said. "We're going to find things to do that aren't going to get done any other way. We can make a difference, and we can have fun, continuing working with people we like."

Luke Timmerman: 206-515-5644 or ltimmerman@seattletimes.com.

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