Will the Bay Area Lose Its Edge as the Top Biotech Hub in 20 Years? We’ll Ask March 16

3/3/11Follow @xconomy

Will the San Francisco Bay Area still be the world’s most vibrant place for life sciences innovation 20 years from now? Will this region still have gravitational pull on bright young scientists who want to make their careers and build great companies?

We are less than two weeks away from the big Xconomy event “Bay Area Life Sciences 2031,” which will raise these questions and many more. This event, which we’re organizing with help from QB3 and BayBio, will be held from 6 pm to 8:30 pm on March 16th at UCSF Mission Bay, Genentech Hall.

This is Xconomy’s first life sciences-themed event since we opened our San Francisco bureau in June, so I realize I should probably explain a bit about how we like to bring people and ideas together.

We’ll start off with some brief opening remarks from Reg Kelly, the indefatigable, insightful, and often entertaining director of QB3. Then we will head straight into the action, as I moderate a panel discussion with four leading lights from different corners of the Bay Area’s biotech scene. Last, we will hear from four biotech entrepreneurs who have potential to shake up their respective fields 20 years from today.

The lineup we have assembled here is none too shabby, if I don’t say so myself. Here they are:

Jeff Bluestone, the executive vice chancellor of UCSF, and the director of the UCSF Diabetes Center. I will be sure to quiz him about what UCSF is really trying to do through its recent string of collaborations with Pfizer, Bayer, and Sanofi-Aventis. Now that UCSF is led by a famed drug developer in Sue Desmond-Hellmann, has the culture of the place changed, and does this once anti-industry stronghold see itself becoming more of a partner to industry over the decades to come? What kind of impact could that have on the Bay Area?

Peter Hirth, the co-founder and CEO of Berkeley, CA-based Plexxikon. Hirth just hit the jackpot this week. His company became the talk of the industry since it agreed to be acquired by Japan-based Daiichi Sankyo for $805 million upfront, plus another $130 million in potential milestone payments. Plexxikon only raised $67 million in its 10-year history, relying on a partner-early/partner-often strategy that many people told Hirth was stupid when he committed to it a decade ago. What lessons does he take from this experience? Does Plexxikon offer a model that others can follow in this notoriously risky, tedious, and costly endeavor known as drug development?

Randy Scott, executive chairman of Redwood City, CA-based Genomic Health (NASDAQ: GHDX). Scott has the unenviable task of trying to convince a short-term-focused world that the smartest thing his company can do is invest for the long term. Genomic Health is one of the very few early success stories in the personalized medicine business. But it isn’t clinging to tradition. Scott has placed a big bet on new super-fast, super-cheap gene sequencing technologies, which he says will be the platform for diagnostics of the future. But how long will this technology really take to start paying dividends? Will payers ever really embrace these (often expensive) diagnostic tests?

Corey Goodman, co-founder and managing director of venBio. Goodman has done pretty much everything in biotech as an investor (venBio is a new strategic venture capital firm), a Big Pharma executive (he ran Pfizer’s biotech drug and innovation center), as an entrepreneur (he co-founded Exelixis and Renovis), and as an academic (he was a professor of neuroscience at Stanford University and UC Berkeley). Given how today’s Big Pharma companies have seen their patent expirations looming for years, and still failed to replenish pipelines with innovative new drugs, is there any reason to think they will still exist in 2031? Why have so many of them made long-term strategic bets on Boston, and not San Francisco? Does that matter?

Don’t worry, I’m not giving it all away. I have plenty more questions to hurl at these guys, so it will be fun.

After the panel, we’ll hear brief 3-4 minute overviews from four entrepreneurs, who will talk fast about what they have that’s so innovative, and why they think it will still matter to healthcare in 2031. They are:

Bill Newell, CEO of South San Francisco-based Sutro Biopharma. His company is seeking to synthesize protein drugs, sidestepping costly methods that rely on incubating proteins in living cells.

Nancy Stagliano, CEO of CytomX Therapeutics. Her South San Francisco-based company, backed by $30 million from Third Rock Ventures and Roche, is seeking to make a new class of antibody drugs with fewer side effects than the blockbusters of today.

Dave Martin, the CEO of South San Francisco-based AvidBiotics. Martin, the legendary former R&D leader at Genentech, is now running a startup that fights bacteria in a novel way that could work on the farm field, and could pave the way for novel antibiotics.

Mickey Urdea, CEO of Emeryville, CA-based Tethys Bioscience. Urdea, one of the first employees at Chiron, has dedicated this next chapter of his career to doing something kinda weird in today’s world—preventing disease instead of treating it. Tethys has a biomarker diagnostic test that predicts the likelihood people will develop Type 2 diabetes.

I’m a stickler on time, so I’ll wink, nudge, squirm or whatever it takes to get this thing to wrap up promptly around 7:30 pm. That’s your time for some high-level networking. If you haven’t gotten a ticket yet, you can go get one here at the registration page. See you there at UCSF on March 16th.

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