If You Don’t Know, Now You Know: San Diego is a Primary Biotech Hub

The Salk Institute for Biological Studies  - I did an internship here in college

The Salk Institute for Biological Studies – I did an internship here in college

Beyond the large military presence, San Diego is known for being a biotech hub.  Thus, it wasn’t a surprise to hear that some local company had  developed an experimental Ebola treatment. According to Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News, San Diego ranks as the third best place for biotech.  For a long time now, this city of 2-3 million punches above its weight class.

“The San Diego region placed third in patents (1,335), VC funding ($386 million), and lab space (13.05 million square feet), hence its ranking here as third. But the city that calls itself “America’s Finest” lagged in NIH funding (7th at $98.4 million) despite its dense concentration of research institutes and one of the larger campuses within the University of California system. The region’s industry group Biocom counted 56,605 jobs in San Diego County in 2012, 143 more jobs than Massachusetts—a figure expected to grow about 6% by this year.”

Considering how the Bay Area and the Boston/Cambridge area are home to four of the most prestigious universities — Stanford, Harvard, Cal Berkeley, MIT — in the world, I do not think it’s too surprising that these areas rank highly as innovation centers.

UCSD Moores Cancer Center

UCSD Moores Cancer Center

The University of California at San Diego (UCSD) is a fine school (#37 in US News & World Report) and can boast highly rated engineering and science programs.  But UCSD alone cannot be the reason why so many biotech companies have emerged.

In addition to UCSD, San Diego can also call the Salk Institute of Biological Studies, the Scripps Research Institute, the Sanford Burnham Medical Research Institute, and the Ludwig Institute for Cancer Research part of their constellation of biological research.

James Watson (left) and Francis Crick (right) - discoverers of DNA

James Watson (left) and Francis Crick (right) – discoverers of DNA – one of these guys worked in SD

More than simply having many research scientists in one place, San Diego also has many of the leading researchers. San Diego has seven Nobel Laureates.  Another metric is the number of Howard Hughes Medical Institute sponsored principal investigators.  The Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) was founded in 1953 and it is one of the most generous private funding sources for biological and medical research.  Every year, HHMI doles out over $800 million in research grants and for each of its principal investigators — lead scientist — it provides them with $1 million a year.  San Diego has 14 out 324 principal investigators.

Typically, a principal investigator (PI) of any lab is not working alone.  She or he has a team of PhDs who test different theories that the PI comes up with.  For instance, when I interned for an HHMI PI in college, I noticed he had 5-7 PhDs from all over the world who each executed different strands of the PI’s running hypothesis.

What does this all mean?

Ten miles in any direction from UCSD you’ll run into either a research institute or a biotech company.  Many of these companies were founded once the science offered enough commercial potential to take it out of the laboratory.   Most biotech companies have names that allude to concepts that most people are not familiar with: Ambrx, Cibus, Fabrus, Ligand Pharmaceuticals.

Surprisingly, Value Line provides a pretty good summary of the difference between biotech and pharma:

  • “Biotechs use “biotechnology” to manufacture drugs, which involves the manipulation of microorganisms (such as bacteria) or biological substances (like enzymes) to perform a specific process… By contrast, conventional pharmas rely on a chemical-based synthetic process to develop small-molecule drugs.”
  • “Unlike pharmas, biotechs focus primarily on research and development, beginning with the discovery of novel compounds, which then get ushered into the clinic for further testing. Indeed, the discovery and development process is often more lengthy, difficult, and costly for biotechs than it is for their standard chemical-based counterparts. For this reason, R&D expenses tend to be very large for biotechs. In many cases, they operate at a loss for an extended period of time…”
  • “Like biotechs, pharmaceutical companies conduct R&D studies, too. But depending on the size of their resources, they generally have greater flexibility to either carry out those functions entirely in-house or license drugs from other entities, including biotechs, for additional development and potential sale. What’s more, pharmas usually generate sales from products they already have on the market. Thus, their top lines tend to be more substantial compared to biotechs. So, while R&D costs might be sizable, sales and marketing expenses are particularly hefty for pharmas, which are key to spurring sales and maximizing profitable returns.”

Having such a large biotech base, San Diego attracts companies that provide the lab equipment and services that these companies rely on as well as companies that complement pure scientific research.  Companies such as Thermo Fisher Scientific, Illumina, NuVasive, ResMed, Covidien, DexCom, and Biogen Idec all have large offices here.

Honestly, I think a big reason why San Diego has emerged as a wonderful place to do “tip of spear” research is because the weather is so great.  While it seems like the rest of the country is in a deep freeze, San Diego is humming along with an overcast 63 degrees F.

Biotech is a relatively new field.  I think the leaders in the field realized they could set up shop anywhere in the US.  They looked at a map and decided to live in a pleasant place: La Jolla.  (Discussing La Jolla will have to be saved for another post.)

Researchers may seem very serious but everyone likes to let their hair down.  My mom was a scientist and she told me of stories of how one of her colleagues made his own moonshine.

For some strange reason, right beyond the prestigious Salk Institute are two unique things: a hang glider port and the infamous Black’s Beach. Black’s is the only nude beach in Southern California.  (Most people discover Black’s as they do a walk along the beach and happen upon a bunch of naked people.)

Someone learning to hang glide with the  Salk Institute below (the collection of buildings)

Someone learning to hang glide with the Salk Institute below (the collection of buildings)

I encourage anyone picking between these top three biotech hubs to not forget that San Diego offers wonderful weather year-round.


Nobel Laureates that call or called San Diego home – recognize any names?

  • Sydney Brenner  – Physiology or medicine
  • Paul Crutzen – Chemistry
  • Robert Engle – Economics
  • Roger Guillemin – Physiology or medicine
  • Harry Markowitz – Economics
  • Mario Molina – Chemistry
  • Roger Y Tsien – Chemistry
  • Hannes Alfven (Deceased) – Physics
  • Francis Crick (Deceased) – Physiology or medicine
  • Renato Dulbecco (Deceased) – Physiology or medicine
  • Mary Goeppert-Mayer (Deceased) – Physics
  • Roberty Holley (Deceased) – Physiology or medicine
  • George Palade (Deceased) – Physiology or medicine
  • Linus Pauling (Deceased) – Chemistry and Peace
  • Harold Urey (Deceased)- Chemistry

Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Principal Investigators in San Diego

  1. Joanne Chory, PhD – Salk Institute – Light and Hormonal Control of Plant Growth and Development
  2. Joseph Ecker, PhD – Salk Institute – Epigenetic Processes in Plants and People
  3. Mark Estelle, PhD – UCSD – Mechanism of Plant Hormone Action in Arabidopsis
  4. Ronald Evans, PhD – Salk Institute – Nuclear Receptors in Physiology and Disease
  5. Susan Ferro-Novick, PhD – UCSD – Vesicle Traffic and Organelle Inheritance
  6. Yishi Jin, PhD – UCSD – Neural Development and Axon Regeneration in C. elegans
  7. J McCammon, PhD -UCSD – Theory of Biomolecular and Cellular Activity
  8. Joseph Noel, PhD – Salk Institute – Mechanistic and Structural Basis for Plant Metabolic Evolution
  9. Ardem Patapoutian, PhD – Scripps – Molecules of Mechanotransduction
  10. Samuel Pfaff, PhD – Salk Institute
  11. Michael Rosenfeld, MD – UCSD – Enhancer and Architectural Mechanisms in…
  12. Massimo Scanziani, PhD – UCSD – The Function of Cortical Circuits
  13. Terrence Sejnowski, PhD – Salk Institute – Computational Neurobiology
  14. Roger Tsien, PhD – UCSD – Molecular Engineering Applied to Cell Biology and Neurobiology

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