The 'Three-Legged Stool' Needed for SD's Biotech Cluster - Voice of San Diego

Economy

The 'Three-Legged Stool' Needed for SD's Biotech Cluster

The key to a regional innovation-based economy is a critical mass of jobs for creative and knowledgeable scientists, engineers and product developers at all stages of their careers and lives.

Early in Voice of San Diego’s innovation quest, reporter Kelly Bennett highlighted a 2011 quote from Marney Cox, chief economist for the San Diego Association of Governments, where he expressed concern that cuts to higher education would “short-circuit this whole economic development activity and job-generation process that we’ve spent so long creating … over the last 30 years.” What does that 30 years of work look like to those of us working inside San Diego’s innovation economy?

Letters logoFor those of us in our 50s, we can now recognize the multi-generational aspects of our innovation-based economy. We’ve watched young scientists hired out of college rent their first apartments in Pacific Beach, migrate north to Bay Park and Clairemont as they start families and move even farther north to Solana Beach and 4S Ranch as their children start school. These migrations are interesting, but what they indicate is even more important to understanding San Diego’s innovation economy. That is, the key to a regional innovation-based economy is a critical mass of jobs for creative and knowledgeable scientists, engineers and product developers at all stages of their careers and lives.

I’m part of a two-scientist household; together we’ve been involved in five different biotechnology organizations in San Diego since the 1990s. The job churn we’ve experienced reflects not only the overall economy, but the reality that biotechnology companies face setbacks, fail, mergeget purchased or, if all goes exceedingly well, grow into the next Isis or Illumina. San Diegans working in the life science industry see job churn as an acceptable risk. That said, many of us still try to save six to nine months’ rent for the worst-case scenario. San Diego is one of a handful of American regions where scientists can reasonably expect to grow both families and companies at the same time.

This job churn leads to an employee base in San Diego with deep expertise in both science and the (often-heartbreaking) business of science. I suppose that biopharmaceutical product development, more than any other innovation-based sector, requires a long view. In fact, the meme regarding drug development is that it takes hundreds of people, hundreds of millions of dollars, and tens of years to take a biomedical discovery to a commercial, regulatory agency-approved product. Biotechnology product development expertise is not typically gained at university; it requires life-long learning in a variety of settings and roles.

I remember taking my cutting-edge academic expertise into a commercial product development setting for the first time. I quickly recognized the experienced folks in the back of the meeting room could see what might work based on insights gained from detours they’d experienced at other companies or after working with scientific teams on other diseases. Our understanding of human biology – even in 2013 – is not nearly as complete as the human genome map might suggest. Finding actionable patterns in biological data requires teams of experts with diverse backgrounds; we learn from each other and take the lessons learned with us as our careers develop.

It has taken San Diego at least five decades to build the “three-legged stool” needed to support a biotechnology cluster: expert university-based researchers and clinicians, public and private syndicates capable of financing product development, and an experienced base of product developers and entrepreneurs. New ideas to make biotechnology product development more sustainableefficient and less capital-intensive abound, but I think that San Diego’s “climate of possibility” depends on the curiosity, creativity and ingenuity of its people. To sustain San Diego’s critical mass of biotechnology professionals, the community requires continued public and private support for higher education, funding for basic research, financing to sustain new ventures, and a good business climate for existing companies.

The loss of hundreds of jobs in San Diego’s life science community during the Great Recession (pretty much the definition of a terrible business climate) has shaken our stability. That said, I think some pundits and commentators fail to understand failure’s role in innovation-based economies. While the loss of jobs is always alarming, we are always assessing the “health” of the innovation community as a whole. The long view is to make sure good-paying, benefits-offering life science jobs are available across the region. The hope is that when one company disappears, new ventures, other companies and research institutes absorb its employees and its expertise.

My hope is that the region’s serial entrepreneurs, government grant-making agencies, and risk-taking syndicates can build life science companies that will have jobs for the next generations of San Diegans. Meanwhile, there is evidence that public authorities and private markets are re-investing in our infrastructure: California’s public higher education budgets have been stabilized somewhat, the state government offered help to biotechnology companies, and the much-discussed biotech IPO window appears open.

Those of us working in San Diego’s innovation economy care very much about the overall climate and regional infrastructure for startup companies. Those startups represent future medicines and medical devices for patients worldwide – but they may also be our employers down the road. If San Diego’s new company pipeline falters, we’ll see our employees (new graduates, serial entrepreneurs, and grizzled regulatory affairs professionals alike) move elsewhere with their families.

 Susan M. Baxter lives in Mira Mesa and is the executive director of California State University Program for Education and Research in Biotechnology. The opinions are hers and don’t necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of the university.

Baxter’s commentary has been edited for style, grammar and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us here. Want to respond? Submit a commentary.

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