San Diego lays claim to the country’s third largest biotech cluster in the United States. The region is home to more than 1,700 biotech companies that employ approximately 42,000 people, according to a report from Biocom, a nonprofit trade association representing the life sciences industry in Southern California. The industry has a more than $22 billion economic impact in the county.
Local biotech leaders say the industry is healthy and remains a hotbed of innovation.
“It’s not only as robust as ever, I think the future of the life science industry is more promising than ever,” said Joe Panetta, president and CEO of Biocom. “I’m more optimistic than ever of the future potential of the industry, especially if you look at with some of the things that are happening right here.”
Some of the hot areas include genomics, proteomics, synthetic biology, biofuels and medical devices.
Panetta said one area showing tremendous opportunity is synthetic biology, which includes renewable chemicals and biofuels. San Diego is home to several companies in the nascent field, including Sapphire Energy, Synthetic Genomics and SG Biofuels, which earlier this year secured $17 million in new funding.
Duane Roth, CEO of business accelerator Connect, cited genomics as a promising field. As the price of genetic sequencing continues to fall, the opportunities to use it in medicine increase.
“The genomics revolution is becoming real,” Roth said. “We’ve been talking and talking about personal medicine, and I think we’re turning the corner, where it’s really starting to happen.”
Innovation comes partly a result of the high concentration of local research institutions, including Scripps Research Institute, the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, Salk Institute and the newly created California Institute for Biomedical Research, which aims to accelerate the development of new drugs. These facilities boast top-notch faculty and foster collegiality and collaboration, Roth said.
Both Roth and Panetta agreed the greatest obstacles to innovation are funding and the regulatory process.
“The biggest challenge facing the industry is funding,” Roth said. “But since I started in the industry 30 years ago, it’s always been funding. The other is regulatory. How do you regulate new inventions? The challenges of the FDA are real.”
The Food and Drug Administration is often criticized for stifling innovation with its lengthy review times and a review process that lacks transparency. Panetta said the agency’s greater appreciation of innovation and progress toward reform is encouraging.
“They’re moving in a positive direction, but there’s still a lot of work to do,” he said.
San Diego County has one of the highest concentrations of high-technology companies in the United States. Nearly 160,000 workers are employed at 1,400 tech companies throughout the region.
Forbes recently ranked the region No. 3 on its list of the best cities for tech jobs, behind Seattle and Washington, D.C. During the last two years, tech employment has grown by almost 16 percent and science, technology, engineering and mathematics-related jobs by 6.5 percent.
“Every company I know of has openings in engineering in high-tech,” said Rory Moore, CEO for local technology company accelerator CommNexus. “If you just graduated and got a degree from SDSU or UCSD in engineering, you should be able to find a job without any problem. If you’re an experienced engineer, there should be a bidding war for you.”
The jobs outlook is the good news. The bad news, he said, is that companies are downsizing across the board in non-engineering areas.
“Slots that would’ve been filled in HR, sales, marketing, facilities — they’re still being really frugal in those areas,” Moore said.
Until the talent pool catches up with demand, San Diego companies will need to attract employees from outside the area, and be able to demonstrate that the city is a good place to live. Moore also said it would benefit the city to retain tech workers from the military as it downsizes.
“We need to do a better job of integrating them into commercial world, helping them to find jobs in San Diego and keep them here,” he said.
The hottest fields in the local tech scene are areas in “good old-fashioned computer science,” Moore said, citing software development, cloud computing, smart grids and wireless health care.
Duane Roth, CEO of Connect, said he’s most excited by the advances in so-called e-health. The increased use of wireless technologies to monitor health management and health care delivery, from heart disease to exercise programs, could be a boon to San Diego companies.
“These are consumer products that can be a tremendous benefit, as opposed to going to the ER and needing a hospital stay,” Roth said. “All these things that are very costly and inconvenient will now go into the home.”
Roth sees a potential danger in the over regulation of wireless health products, and said the Food and Drug Administration and Federal Communications Commission will need to stay in close contact with the industry to ensure the opportunity isn’t lost.
“The industry is going to be very healthy, in San Diego in particular. In this wireless health there’s a huge, huge opportunity. Part of this is geography,” said Roth, referring to clusters such as the Torrey Pines Mesa. “The fact that we have all these companies in one space means we can collaborate, learn and grow quicker than areas where it’s not easy to get together.”