Economic downturns often light the fuse of revolutionary change. And one key change is becoming apparent now in San Diego’s life sciences community—which has been hammered by the 2008 capital markets collapse and plunge in VC funding.
Unable to raise capital, many biotechs and medical instrument makers were forced over the past 16 months to slash their budgets, lay off employees, and look for easier and less expensive ways to carry on the process of bringing drugs and devices to market. In some cases, that has meant outsourcing research, clinical trials, and other work to overseas labs. But many San Diego life sciences companies also are turning to local consulting firms, biomedical research laboratories, and a variety of specialized service providers. Collectively, they are known as CROs, or clinical research organizations—and in San Diego, at least, they are proliferating. (CROs are alternately known as contract research organizations)
At Xconomy’s request, San Diego-based Assay Depot, an online marketplace for CRO services, conducted a survey of CROs in the greater San Diego area. To our mutual surprise, Assay Depot found 144 companies providing a variety of contract services for local life science companies. Assay Depot’s Christopher Petersen plotted these companies on a Google map, below; you can scroll and zoom the map and click on each pin for the name and URL of each company. We also have provided a complete list of all the companies, with links to the websites of all-but-one CRO, at the bottom of this story.
Is 144 enough to count as a new technology cluster in San Diego?
If so, it is a hub that has been 15 years in the making, according to Joe Panetta, CEO of Biocom, the nonprofit industry group that represents San Diego’s biotech and biomedical instrument companies. Panetta says that Biocom was formed in 1995 to help local biotech startups connect with local business, law, and scientific service providers.
In recent years, though, there has been an explosion in the number of local companies that provide specialized biomedical research, from matching molecules with targets for drug development to recruiting patients for clinical trials.
The CROs “create efficiencies and cost-savings and a level of expertise that biotechs would not otherwise have,” Panetta says. The proliferation of CROs has accelerated in recent years because of the weakened economy, he adds. With waves of layoffs sweeping through the upper echelons of many biotechs, Panetta says, “A lot of experts are moving into consultant roles. So over the last year, we have seen a real buildup in the numbers and depth of CROs.” With the venture-backed model for life sciences startups stalled by the weak economy and uncertainty over the outcome of health reform in Congress, Panetta says CROs represent “a different model in which [life science] companies can succeed by relying on outside expertise that they previously would have relied on internally.”
View San Diego CROs in a larger map
Kevin Lustig, Assay Depot’s CEO, cites a variety of other factors for the growth of CROs, including great academic centers, San Diego’s high quality of life, lack of large pharmaceutical employers, and cheap lab space close to academic centers. “As always, the actual reason is likely some combination of these factors,” Lustig says.
As he puts it, many outstanding researchers come to work at one of San Diego’s renowned biomedical institutes (which include UC San Diego, The Scripps Research Institute, The Salk Institute, and recently renamed Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute)—and they stay for the balmy coastal lifestyle. “Since we have relatively few large pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies in San Diego, these researchers tend to work at smaller companies,” Lustig says. And perhaps because they work at startups, they tend to be more likely to both catch the entrepreneurial bug and gain the multitasking experience needed to run their own business. “Lacking significant funding, these new entrepreneurs start service businesses that require little or no initial capital outlay. Over time, this small effect becomes large enough to make a difference in the region and it becomes self perpetuating,” Lustig says.
Duane Roth, CEO of San Diego’s Connect, a local nonprofit group established to promote technology and entrepreneurship, sees the proliferation of life sciences CROs as evidence of another trend.
For many years now, Roth says, high-tech companies throughout the United States have been extolling the virtues of working in the Internet “cloud”—a metaphor for the abstract network of servers that host a multitude of online services, software, and data, among other things. Cloud computing enables companies that once built their own networks and hardware, for storing data and operating business applications, to avoid the enormous capital expenditure by renting computer resources from a third-party provider.
“The cloud is where all the data resides, and where the expertise now resides,” Roth says. “The high-tech guys have led the way, but you could argue that even greater savings can be realized by leveraging similar efficiencies in the life sciences sector.”
Instead of incurring the cost of building a laboratory and manufacturing facility to make a new drug compound, Roth says biotech startups nowadays can operate more efficiently—and save money—by turning to CROs, although Roth prefers to use the term “professional service providers,” or PSPs. But his central point remains: “What would have cost $10 million in the mid-1990s now costs $3 million because we go straight to the experts to get the data,” Roth says. In a recent post for the Xconomist Forum, Roth describes PSPs as a key part in an alternative method for supporting technology innovation, which he describes as the “distributed partnering model.”
As a result, Roth says, startups can assess at a much earlier stage whether their technology really can be commercialized—“and they don’t end up owning a vivarium.”
Petersen, who is Assay Depot’s chief information officer, says the map and following list of San Diego CROs “includes every organization that we reasonably think offers scientific services.” After compiling the list, Petersen said he manually excluded certain non-business organizations, such as UCSD. As for its completeness, Petersen says while Assay Depot has the world’s most comprehensive database of preclinical CROs, “you can never be sure you have ‘everyone.'” So let me know if you think your business should be on our list.
Imgenex (Acquired by Novus Biologicals Oct. 30, 2013. )
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