Boston’s Got Big Mo in Biotech, But SF is Pushing Back

1/21/13Follow @xconomy

San Francisco is used to being No. 1 in lots of things. It’s there in technology, and in biotechnology. Every magazine that ever ranked ‘Best Places to Live’ is practically required to put it near the top. Even Bay Area sports teams are riding high, as the Giants won the World Series, the 49ers are heading to the Super Bowl, and Stanford University won the Rose Bowl.

Northern Californians are famously laid-back folks, but watch the hair stand up on the back of their necks if you suggest the biotech momentum is moving to Boston. My recent column about this trend hit a nerve a few months ago, and people were still ranting or raving about it to me a couple weeks ago at the JP Morgan Healthcare Conference. Generally speaking, Boston readers loved it. Bay Area readers mostly loathed it.

I have heard some insightful comments from readers ever since that column, and there are some signs that West Coast biotech leaders are paying attention to the momentum that they, too, see in Boston. Tony Coles, the CEO of South San Francisco-based Onyx Pharmaceuticals (NASDAQ: ONXX), along with BayBio and Deloitte, has convened a working group of top CEOs, venture capitalists and university officials to brainstorm about actions the region can take to stimulate more biotech activity. BayBio, the California Healthcare Institute, and PwC put out a report earlier this month that reminded everybody that there’s still plenty of action on the West Coast, as nine of the 39 new FDA-approved drugs in 2012 (about one-fourth of the total) came from California companies.

Onyx Pharmaceuticals CEO Tony Coles

Coles is a great choice to spearhead this effort. He’s a well-respected executive, he runs one of the Bay Area’s hottest biotechs, and he brings a fresh perspective to local issues because he spent most of his career on the East Coast. He’s interested in action, not the appearance of action. “If a white paper is the only result (of the group), then we have failed,” Coles recently told the San Francisco Business Times. “A white paper is for stimulating discussion and debate, but there is no tangible product. We want stuff to happen from this.”

Coles isn’t yet ready to talk about any recommendations, which I suspect will have to touch on thorny issues of transportation, land use density, workforce development, university/industry collaborations and more. If this group is truly serious, the work will take some time. There are many factors at work, and surely there’s no single magic wand anyone can wave to ignite more regional biotech. Progress will be measured over time through metrics like venture capital financing, number of companies formed, … Next Page »

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  • marycanady

    Nice post Luke, I’ve often wondered about the intangible assets of a region that lead to a biotech hub being formed. In SoCal we’ve tried to start some groups in OC/LA and they didn’t do well due to the spread out geography. Interesting to think of it as inspiring in NorCal. In San Diego I don’t think it’s a coincidence that our academic institutions have a gorgeous view of the ocean, it is inspirational to the researchers.

    Funny how Mark Zuckerberg instinctively moved from Boston/Cambridge to San Fran to get Facebook off the ground. There is an allure for the tech and biotech crowd to go to California to grow their idea. I do wish California had the financial centers like the east coast does, so that we could be a place where more capital would be available to drive these big ideas. Publications like Xconomy help to flatten the world, however, great work!

    • realposter

      mary – Zuckerberg’s move to Silicon Valley wasn’t really “instinctive”. Originally they had no plans to move out west… until they business was getting big enough that they needed the tech talent. It was adviceto “go west young man”.

  • http://twitter.com/dtongMD Dominic Tong

    Fortunate to have lived in S.F., San Diego and, most recently, Boston, and traveling quite frequently to all three great cities, I would describe Boston as a “small” ‘big city’, San Diego as a “big” ‘small city’, and San Francisco as a “big” ‘big city’, actually The Bay Area including Silicon Valley. Of course, this is an ‘apples and oranges’ comparison given the disparate histories, municipal/local infrastructure, academic innovation engines, and, importantly, capital funding. It is my firm belief that the edge in any such (dynamic) discussion will be ultimately based on people and invention, creating sustainable companies in a Darwinian sense: hiring and rewarding great people and developing superior innovation. Thanks for the nice article, Luke…and look forward to another update in six months time!