East Bay Works To Capture Biotechnology Manufacturing
Three counties in the eastern Bay Area are in position to capitalize on a predicted boom in the biotechnology industry, according to a new report. Alameda, Contra Costa and Solano counties, in fact, could be in better position than other locales in the Bay Area to accommodate manufacturing and distribution of new biotech products.
While the report provides good economic news, it also makes clear that future prosperity will not happen without the active involvement of local governments, economic development advocates, workforce training experts, industry insiders and educators ranging from high school science teachers to university researchers. The study's 60 recommendations fall into two areas — economic development, and workforce education and training. In the former, the study recommends development of a business assistance and promotion center, development of a business incubator, and better coordination between the industry and local planning and building officials. In the workforce category, the study recommends establishing formal ties between the industry and local schools, improving training programs at community colleges and universities, and development of a workforce training center.
The Bay Area biotech study says that the region's expensive real estate, infrastructure and labor "will become a significant disadvantage" as the sector moves beyond the research and development stage and into manufacturing. To help make the area more competitive, the study recommends that local governments adopt common standards for industry buildings and familiarize planners and building officials with industry needs. The study also recommends zoning sites near freeways and public transit that have infrastructure and good telecommunications capabilities.
"It is quite likely that local government and economic development agencies need to have a proactive and aggressive role in retaining and attracting facilities in the region," states the report, which notes that San Diego, Seattle, North Carolina and even Scotland try to poach Bay Area companies. The report, "A Critical Analysis of the Local Biotechnology Industry Cluster in Alameda, Contra Costa & Solano Counties," was prepared by three consulting firms for an industry trade group, and local economic development and workforce training organizations.
The report, released earlier this summer, came out only two weeks after the Brookings Institution released a study ("Signs of Life: The Growth of Biotechnology Centers in the U.S.") that found most communities that are chasing the biotech pot of gold are wasting their time. One of the few exceptions was the Bay Area, which, by most measures, has the oldest, largest and best-funded biotech cluster in the world.
Proximity means everything in the biotech industry, said Sue Markland Day, executive director of the Bay Area Bioscience Center. "Life sciences are unique. The more people per square foot you have in a lab, the more ideas you get," she said.
The Brookings study concluded that the Bay Area is a prime location: "The Bay Area benefits from an impressive combination of intellectual and financial capital. Biotech firms have spun off from each of the region's three major research institutions (Stanford, Berkeley and University of California, San Francisco). Silicon Valley continues to have the largest concentration of venture capital investors in the world, as well as the greatest number of highly active biotech investors."
Of course, much of this biotech activity occurs in the tech hotbeds of Silicon Valley, San Mateo County and San Francisco, whose UC campus is a national research leader. But the latest report found that the three counties in the study have about 14,500 people working in 164 biotech companies. The number of biotech jobs in the three-county region increased 150% from 1992 to 2000. In fact, Emeryville, in Alameda County, is home to one of the region's largest biotech company — the 1.700-employee Chiron Corporation. And another giant, South San Francisco-based Genentech, has built major manufacturing facilities in the Solano County city of Vacaville.
Still, there is not much local government can do about the two issues Bay Area company executives say are the two biggest obstacles to growth — the cost of living and the expense of space.
Solano County Economic Development Corporation President Linda Brown believes her county can get past the real estate and development issues. Solano County has larger sites and cheaper real estate than most places in the Bay Area, and Vacaville, which is on the western edge of the Central Valley, has proven accommodating to biotech manufacturers.
"We have strength in attracting manufacturing." Brown said. "We're well-positioned between UC Davis, which is just beyond the county line, and UC Berkeley, down Interstate 80."
Day, of the Bioscience Center, seemed to think the development hurdles were not too tall, although she would like to see local government assist with redevelopment of vacant industrial sites that are ideal for the biotech industry. Already a number of Peninsula start-ups have located their manufacturing plants in the East Bay, partly because most of the industry's workforce already lives in the East Bay's less-expensive housing. Plus, she said, these types of companies grow out of existing businesses and universities, and they like to keep close track of production. So it is unlikely a company would build its manufacturing facilities in another locale.
The bigger issue, at least in Solano County, might be a potential shortfall of skilled workers, Brown said. To address this, Solano Community College has established a biotech production training program and has big plans for expansion. Furthermore, said Day, California State University, Hayward offers "nuts and bolts" degrees on running a biotech company. The study recommends more of these sorts of programs and even modifying high school curricula "to meet the basic needs" of the industry.
Day would like to see stronger links between UC Berkeley and the industry. "We know there are a lot of ideas on the campus that have not been commercialized," she said.
Indeed, the study found that the industry is not as well connected as it could be to schools and the community in general, and the report suggests strengthening ties so that everyone understands the evolving industry's needs.
Sue Markland Day, Bay Area Bioscience Center, (415) 834-1401.
Bioscience Center website (contains report), www.baybio.org.
Linda Brown, Solano Economic Development Corporation, (707) 864-1855.
Brookings Institution report, www.brookings.org/dybdocroot/urban/publications/biotech.htm.