The San Francisco Bay Area has a storied tradition as the birthplace and leading hub of biotechnology, but something curious has happened the past couple years. Most of the scientifically groundbreaking, medical-textbook rewriting, financially lucrative new biotech drugs of the 21st century are coming from somewhere else.
This dawned on me last week as I started thinking about the 20-year outlook for the Bay Area life sciences cluster, in advance of the Bay Area Life Sciences 2031 event I’m organizing in San Francisco on Wednesday evening. It forced me to think about the really innovative drugs that still have a chance to generate billions of dollars in revenue two decades from today, that will help people live longer and better lives, and that are blazing new scientific trails. I’m talking about drugs that are a scientific, clinical, and business trifecta—drugs like Gleevec, Avastin, Herceptin, and Enbrel.
Plenty of molecules in the hopper today have that kind of potential, but for the purposes of this subjective parlor game I wanted to focus on the ones that have generated proof through pivotal clinical trials, and have either recently won FDA approval or are clearly on the verge of approval. That makes for a pretty short list:
• Human Genome Sciences’ treatment for lupus
• Dendreon’s immunotherapy for prostate cancer
• Seattle Genetics’ “empowered antibody” for rare lymphomas
• Amgen’s antibody for osteoporosis and cancer
• Plexxikon and Roche’s genetically tailored treatment for melanoma
• Genentech’s souped-up version of Herceptin for breast cancer
A couple of things jump out at me right away. Of these eight new molecules, two are coming from Boston, two are from Seattle, one is from Washington, D.C., one is from greater Los Angeles, and only the last two are from the San Francisco Bay Area. These products are important not just for shareholders, patients, and scientists, but also for their respective regions, because they stir up enthusiasm that attracts bright young scientists and businesspeople who want to be part of something historic and to help build on that legacy.
Before I went too far in concluding that the Bay Area’s regional biotech supremacy is in jeopardy, I thought I’d get another point of view from someone in the trenches—Tony Coles, the CEO of Emeryville, CA-based Onyx Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ONXX). His company has gone through a similar internal exercise, mapping out which drugs in the works stand to make the biggest long-term impact.
Coles added two drugs to my list that he thinks have similar potential—Genentech’s pertuzumab for cancer, and Xoma’s XOMA-052 for diabetes. With a little nudging from his spokeswoman, he also nominated Onyx’s carfilzomib for multiple myeloma, although he agreed that it doesn’t fit my criteria since it’s a second-in-class molecule attempting to one-up the pioneer in its space—Millennium: Takeda’s bortezomib (Velcade).
In my mind, the drugs he added require more proof from clinical trials. But the more important question I wanted to ask Coles was whether he thinks the San Francisco Bay Area is still poised to lead biotech drug innovation 20 years out.
The short answer is yes. Coles has lived “all over the place” in his biotech career, including about 10 years in Boston, before moving to the Bay Area, where he has served the past three years as the CEO of Onyx.
“While there is very exciting stuff in Boston, there’s nothing like the spirit of possibility and invention that absolutely permeates the Bay Area,” Coles says. “It’s very energizing.”
All of the key ingredients are still in the Bay Area to create those next Avastins and Herceptins, Coles says: the basic research at UCSF, Stanford University, and UC Berkeley; the venture capital; the experienced managerial talent pool; and the entrepreneurial spirit that convinces people they can succeed in a business where 90 percent of drugs fail in clinical trials.
I see all the ingredients Coles is talking about. I’ve lived and worked in San Francisco, Boston, and Seattle in recent years, and I’d say all the key ingredients for real breakthroughs are in all three places, to varying degrees. To my mind, that means one or two places won’t dominate the future of biotech, and that we are really headed toward a more geographically distributed industry.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on where you think the blockbusters of tomorrow are likely to come from, and why, and especially if you can point to other centers of biotech I haven’t mentioned. As always, I’d love to hear your thoughts posted in the comment section below. Or even better, let me know what you think at UCSF’s Mission Bay campus on Wednesday night. See you there.
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