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Biotech gaining ground in areas north of San Diego County

Chemicon International has been supplying immunological reagents to the biotechnology market for nearly 25 years. Over the years, the Temecula-based company also has developed kits that can help diagnosticians and physicians detect infectious diseases such as West Nile virus.

A growing number of biotech and technology firms have put down roots in Southwest California.

Chemicon is among a growing number of biotech and technology firms that have put down roots in a fast growing region known as Southwest California, located one hour north of San Diego's Biotech Beach, one of the nation's leading biotech and medical research clusters.

For out-of-state vendors looking to better serve the more than 200 biotech companies in San Diego, Southwest California is as good a place as any to be.

That's why when Chemicon expanded, it did so in Temecula.

"This will be the base for growth of our research reagent business," said Jeff Linton, Chemicon president. "Ultimately, we will look to neighborhoods here in Temecula."

Chemicon recently announced plans to consolidate its research department in Temecula. Chemicon's corporate parent, Atlanta-based Serologicals Corp., acquired an East Coast biotech firm in October and has been integrating it into its Chemicon unit.

Ultimately, Chemicon will begin making tools for research on human embryonic stem cells. Tools for stem-cell research already make up about 10 percent of the company's business, but Linton expects that percentage to increase significantly.

Like real estate, the biotech business is all about location and being in the right place at the right time.

"In our business, we rely a great deal on our interaction with medical research institutions," Linton said. "Given the sheer volume of what we do, it's important that we stay on the leading edge of where research is going."

Over the years, Southwest California has benefited greatly from its proximity to San Diego, the top life sciences center in the nation according to a study by the Milken Institute, a Santa Monica-based think tank. San Diego beat out traditional biotech strongholds such as Boston and the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill metro area for the top ranking.

Such an honor is about much more than just bragging rights.

"Clusters of existing and emerging science-based technologies are crucial factors in shaping the economic winners and losers of the first half of the 21st century," the study stated.

San Diego's life sciences industry is responsible for 55,600 jobs and $5.8 billion in income - 5.3 percent of the region's economic output.

San Diego's universities and private research institutes spawned much of the biotech growth in the 1990s. According to a report in Nature, the University of California at San Diego produced 69 biotech and high-tech firms, The Salk Institute for Biological Studies launched 17, and The Scripps Research Institute developed 40 companies. Recently, large pharmaceutical firms such as Pfizer, Novartis, Johnson & Johnson, and Schering-Plough have discovered the region as well.

Chemicon, which employs about 230 and reports annual sales of $75 million, recruits heavily from San Diego-based educational and research institutions.

Not surprisingly, Southwest California boasts an available pool of skilled labor familiar with clean room policies, affordable real estate, innovative financing, special business zones, easy access to other key Southern California markets and a resident infrastructure to accommodate research and entrepreneurial activity associated with stem cell research.

One of Southwest California's biggest selling points is its skilled work force. One-quarter of its residents hold bachelor's degrees, and more than 35 percent are professionals and managers.

The built-in pool of homegrown workers has allowed large companies such as Guidant and Chemicon to prosper. "

"If you are going to locate a biotech company in Southwest California, we already have people who live here who are knowledgeable," said Bob Larson, who was vice president of operations at Guidant's sprawling 575,000-square-foot plant in Temecula until he retired in 2000. "All of the disciplines in the biotech industry are resident in the Guidant facility," which employs more than 3,000.

Many of Chemicon's workers choose to live in San Diego and work in Southwest California, a reverse commute of about 45 miles. The drive is very tolerable, according to Linton. For those workers who choose to live in Southwest California, they discover a family-oriented area with affordable housing and a small town atmosphere.

The region is fast developing the technological and educational resources to support a growing concentration of biotech companies and their suppliers.

Southwest California also is home to FFF Enterprises, a leading provider of human plasma products, vaccines and clinical trial drugs.

Founded 17 years ago, FFF employs 160 and posts annual sales more than $500 million. Company founder and chief executive Patrick M. Schmidt chose to locate FFF in Southwest California because of its unique location and quality of life.

FFF Enterprises' corporate headquarters in Temecula is about an hour away from major commercial and cargo air hubs in Ontario, San Diego, Los Angeles and Orange County.

"It was a very strategic decision," said Kit-Bacon Gressitt, vice president of marketing for FFF. "Many of the products we manage and distribute are for emergency use, and they must be temperature controlled. We need to be as close to as many airports as possible."

FFF is the nation's largest supplier of fractionated blood products, including albumin, intravenous immune globulin and coagulation products.

Southwest California is among the first areas in the nation to be wired with Verizon Communications Inc. fiber-optic cable with Internet connection speeds up to 20 times faster than DSL. The bottom line: Residents and businesses now enjoy faster and cheaper Internet hookups.

"This certainly gives Southwest California an edge over other communities with Internet, phone and cable service that is faster, better and less expensive," said Gregory Lee, manager of business development for the Southwest California Economic Alliance, a regional business and job attraction group that includes the cities of Murrieta, Lake Elsinore and Temecula and Riverside County.

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