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.
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, new drug and device approvals, revenues, R&D spending, patents, and more.
But culture, that great intangible factor, also plays a big role, and one reader thought I had underestimated it in my analysis of San Francisco. Una Ryan, a longtime Boston biotech executive and industry leader who moved to San Francisco, shared some fascinating and nuanced points that I think deserve some air time.
As background, she’s a native of the U.K., a former CEO of a publicly traded biotech company (Avant Immunotherapeutics) and a member of the BIO board of directors and MassBio board. She and her husband recently moved to San Francisco, near the city’s beautiful Presidio, with plans to carry on her biotech career while being closer to her grandchildren.
When she arrived last fall in the Bay Area and started exploring, Ryan says she was struck by how the difference in geography and surroundings affects people’s thinking and aspirations. She said she sees a certain collaborative magic in Boston, in having so many different companies, investors, researchers and hospitals packed into such a tight geographic zone. But there can be a downside to having so much in a small space, she says.
“People will bite my head off when I say this,” Ryan says. “I love Boston. It’s a great place to run a public company, to run a private company, and a nonprofit. I’ve done all those things there. I just feel Boston is a small city. Everything beautiful about Boston is close at hand. The trees, the birds, the old statehouse, the buildings—they’re all close at hand. Here [in San Francisco] what’s beautiful is a mountain range or the sky, or the fact I can see the mouth of a harbor from my house. There’s a largeness here.”
That landscape, with everything from the views of the Golden Gate Bridge from a hundred different city hilltops to the beauty of the Point Reyes coastline, has an effect on regional culture and people’s outlook on life, she says. It’s no accident, she says, that some of the very biggest biotech and tech success stories happened in this Western place with a tradition of people who migrated here and believed anything was possible.
Biotech entrepreneurs in Boston, she says, are more influenced by popular notions of how companies need to be built now to be small and lean—to make them tastier for potential acquirers. To be fair, that short-term focus on pushing for the “exit,” rather than building great companies that endure, is pervasive in today’s biotech. But it’s not quite as widely conformed to in the West, she says. Big dreams still sometimes hold sway in this place of big landscapes.
“I think there’s more of an aspiration to change the world here. People here think big,” Ryan says. “The really big biotechs, Amgen and Genentech, they are here. Even in technology, companies like Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook—they are on the West Coast. I don’t know that every entrepreneur thinks ‘I’m going to build an Amgen or Apple,’ but when you have a history or legacy, it makes you think big. I grew up in Oxford as a little girl, and went to Cambridge. The huge legacy of all those famous people, all those Nobel Prize winners, was extremely important in the humility of doing things. You realize you are part of a historic framework, and you hope to add some knowledge. It gives you something great to aspire to. These top successful companies on the West Coast have had an inspirational effect on the entrepreneurs here.”
It should be noted that not everything Ryan sees in San Francisco is rosy. The political focus in Northern California biotech is more on national issues in Washington D.C. that affect the industry, rather than state issues in Sacramento, which do matter. Boston biotech companies pay attention to the same national issues, but partly because their statehouse is so close, they can easily rub elbows with local officials.
Geography has its trade-offs in political influence, and also in global finance. In Boston, it’s no big deal for biotech executives to hop down to meet big-money investors in New York once or twice a week. That’s not so convenient for West Coasters, Ryan says. On the flip side, Californians are almost intuitively conditioned to look toward Asia, and think it’s no big deal to get on a plane to go to China. “In Boston, people will tell you, ‘I just got back from China,’ and that’s a big thing,” Ryan says.
The possibilities in Northern California are still “soaring,” Ryan says, although she sees room for improvement in local political engagement, and coordinating efforts among various industry support groups. She says she worries about California officials getting disconnected from biotech, or not really seeing how it connects strategically with the regional tech sector. That disconnectedness can lead to state actions that hurt, intended or not, Ryan says.
While people, myself included, can get hung up on the question of ‘Who’s No. 1?’ ultimately, it isn’t really that important. What’s more important is that the U.S. maintains its historic role as the lead innovator in life sciences, and that it has one thriving epicenter on each coast, and a network of smaller regional hubs that also produce important biomedical advances.
Boston, clearly, has done some wonderful things with compact land use and public transportation that have had a positive effect on its biotech hub. The San Francisco Bay Area, a place designed for the automobile, has got to figure out how to move people around faster and create nodes (like the Mission Bay neighborhood) where biotech pros can mix effectively face-to-face without always having to spend 30-45 minutes in a car between meetings. The Bay Area also has a serious problem with an overpriced real estate market, which I think creates a deterrent for bright young people starting their careers and considering buying their first home.
The answers here aren’t obvious, and biotech executives alone can’t solve them. Biotech also can’t just exist in its own little bubble, either, disengaged from serious local issues, and expect everything to turn out OK. It’s encouraging to see Tony Coles and a number of San Francisco biotech leaders get involved to make sure the Bay Area doesn’t lose some of its biotech magic. Boston certainly can’t rest on its laurels, either. Like in all great rivalries, maybe these competitors can learn a few things from each other and push each other to get better.
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