Published in UT San Diego, March 31, 2014
Well, if J. Craig Venter has his way, those sentences will still be true but with some modifications. He just raised $70 million for a new company called Human Longevity, with the goal of extending our lifetimes. This venture is one more indication that San Diego biotech is booming.
To learn why and what we need to do to ensure its continued success, we sat down with Joe Panetta, CEO of Biocom, the industry’s trade group. Today, the organization has 600 members — up from 200 when Panetta joined in 1999.
Q: Why is biotech in San Diego booming?
A: We have built a solid foundation over the last 35 years, including developing the funding mechanisms and growing a group of experienced serial entrepreneurs and CEOs.
Add to this a sophisticated serial workforce, knowledgeable service providers and supportive organizations like Biocom, Connect, CommNexus, the San Diego Economic Development Corporation and the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, and you have the recipe for greatness.
Q: Who is our competition?
A: Boston, but they don’t have the collaborative environment that we’ve developed in San Diego (including 18 feet of snow in February). Our ecosystem combines the Sanford Center for Regenerative Medicine with our three cancer centers (Moores, Sanford Burnham and Salk), along with joint Ph.D. programs at UC San Diego and SDSU.
Q: What do we need to do to stay competitive?
A: We do a better job of creating a global reputation for our life sciences industry so that companies from Japan, South Korea, Brazil and Europe think of San Diego first when they want to launch an initiative in the U.S. The good news is that we are attracting more and varied large pharmaceutical companies.
Q: What are the challenges?
A: The airport. We have only one flight a day to Tokyo and London and only a few to Mexico City. When I went to China with Gov. (Jerry) Brown to open the California trade office, officials there said, “We can’t get to San Diego easily.” Taxes are high in California, and real estate is expensive (both housing and commercial rents). Environmental regulation compliance is costly, and workers’ compensation is expensive.
Q: What role does government at all levels play?
A: Local government is very important. Biocom got started in the late 1980s when we had severe drought conditions, and our concern was that local government was proposing to turn off the water at certain times of the day. The availability of water is still central to our ability to do business here.
Other issues are local permitting, the cost of regulation and duplicative regulations in California, ensuring that federal research funding continues (over $1.5 billion a year comes into Southern California), and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. I would like to commend Gov. Brown, who came to San Diego last June to sign legislation that provides an exemption from the sales tax for the purchase of research and development and manufacturing equipment for biotech.
Q: What are the next industry trends?
A: The move toward personalized medicine based on genetics, which is why Illumina and Thermo Fisher (which purchased Carlsbad-based Life Technologies) will continue to be important. And convergence — as the telecom and the technology sectors work together to develop products in what is called wireless health, digital health and mobile health. This is an area in which San Diego has unique strengths.