San Diego 92037

10/6/08Follow @bvbigelow

If it seems as if San Diego sprang to sudden prominence as a global capital for innovation, at least part of the explanation can be found atop the oceanside bluff known as Torrey Pines Mesa.

This perch has one of the most prestigious zip codes in the world, 92037, used by the Burnham Institute for Medical Research, The Scripps Research Institute, and The Salk Institute for Biological Studies. Across the street from the Salk is the University of California, San Diego, with its own zip code, 92093. Just down the road are General Atomics and the San Diego headquarters of SAIC, Science Applications International Corp., both government contractors that operate as R&D conglomerates.

Torrey Pines Mesa also may be the most stunningly scenic vista in a city renowned for its Mediterranean-like views of coastal cliffs and beaches, sun-splashed bays, and urban skyline.

The mesa encompasses a 2,000-acre wildlands park, with trails that drop 300 feet through deep ravines to the Pacific Ocean. Coastal fog and rain occasionally sweep through the partly wooded bluff, which is usually bathed in sunshine. The zip code includes the Torrey Pines Golf Course, which hosted the U.S. Open earlier this year, and parts of fabled La Jolla, the affluent seaside resort. As it turns, 92037 also includes the latest office for Xconomy, on North Torrey Pines Road.

Leading researchers who relocate to San Diego often cite the combined allure of this scenic landscape and scientific firepower as a major reason for making the move.

It was part of the reason why K. Barry Sharpless, who shared the 2001 Nobel Prize in chemistry, moved to San Diego from MIT 17 years ago. Sharpless told me years ago he particularly enjoyed the ocean swim from La Jolla shores to La Jolla Cove, a roundtrip distance of roughly 2 miles.

Ron Evans, a professor in the gene expression lab at Salk (and a San Diego Xconomist), described the research institute where he works as “an architectural masterpiece” designed by Louis Kahn on a bluff selected personally by Jonas Salk, best known for his development of a killed-virus polio vaccine.

“It was meant to be symbolic of the movement of Americans from East to West,” Evans told me last week. “This is the last West Coast outpost overlooking the Pacific, constructed by Salk at the peak of his fame. Not only does it have magnificent views of the ocean and cliffs, but it is an uncluttered landscape. One never gets tired of that.”

Still, the emergence of Torrey Pines Mesa as a scientific powerhouse did not happen by chance, says Mary Walshok, a UCSD Associate Vice Chancellor and sociologist who has studied Silicon Valley and other technology clusters.

San Diego has a 100-year history of courting the U.S. Navy and relying on the military for its economic development, Walshok says. The Navy and Marine Corps continue to maintain major military bases in the region today.

Yet Walshok credits John J. Hopkins, president of General Dynamics Corp. during World War II, for encouraging San Diego’s city leaders to expand the regional economic base by zoning Torrey Pines Mesa for light industry that included research and development.

In 1955, General Dynamics established a new division in San Diego called General Atomic under the management of Frederic de Hoffman, a veteran of the wartime Manhattan Project at Los Alamos. (Today the privately held company is known for developing the Predator, the unmanned warplane used extensively by U.S. forces in Iraq and elsewhere.)

The vision that Hopkins and de Hoffman had for Torrey Pines Mesa was soon joined by Roger Revelle, who led the effort that established UCSD in 1960. Revelle had headed what was then U.C. Berkeley’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla.

“They understood that the physical beauty of a place, especially in winter, was a key factor for recruiting world-class scientists,” Walshok says. “In that sense, the ecology worked for us.”

As San Diego’s research institutions expanded, the region’s venture community seemed to acquire a critical mass with the success of Linkabit, a company that specialized in satellite communications, and a biotechnology company called Hybritech.

Linkabit co-founders Irwin Jacobs and Andrew Viterbi left in the years after their venture was acquired in 1980, and started Qualcomm in 1985. That, in turn, prompted the creation of scores of other wireless companies in San Diego.

Hybritech founders Ted Greene and Howard Birndorf, who celebrated their company’s 30th anniversary last month, inspired a host of other successful biotechs in San Diego, including Idec (now part of Biogen Idec), Nanogen, and Amylin Pharmaceuticals.

It also explains—at least in certain circles—why San Diego’s 92037 is a more glamorous zip code than Beverly Hills’ 90210.

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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