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Which city will be the next biotech cluster?

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Seattle, San Francisco, Boston and San Diego are widely recognized and established biotech clusters. Who will be next? Phoenix, Salt Lake City, Chicago, Madison, Albuquerque, Orlando or Atlanta?


The Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO) is the largest biotechnology event in the world, drawing 18,000 to 20,000 participants annually. This year's event, to be held in Chicago in early April, will feature breakout sessions on topics ranging from fermentation to personalized medicine and scale-up, and will give fresh insight into an industry that is playing a bigger role in every aspect of our lives.

The vendor's exhibitions, on the other hand, are always predictable. Of the hundreds of exhibitors, 65 percent are "wanna-be" biotech clusters from Alaska to Kentucky, Singapore and New Delhi. The question is, do these areas have what it takes to become a successful cluster?

A biotech cluster is a critical infrastructure consisting of both physical and human capital. Emerging biotech companies need space to grow and must be able to draw from a large pool of available scientists and technicians as they expand.

The presence of one or more major universities or medical research institutions that generate the basic discoveries is critical, providing the scientific foundation for the formation of new companies.

Finally, biotech companies need money to develop new drugs and medical devices and must be part of a well-developed venture capital community.

The lack of any of these key ingredients is a severe handicap in founding a cluster. There are no substitutes for a highly skilled employment base, and top medical and academic research institutions cannot be replicated overnight.

When you consider the number of cities that have all of these "cluster" ingredients in place, it is easy to see which markets are best-positioned to become the next biotech centers. Phoenix, for example, is attracting a number of biotech-related firms, driven by Arizona State University's financial commitment to expanding its renowned Biodesign Institute.

That being said, I do foresee the development of mini clusters -- a junior cluster that lacks one or more of the essential ingredients. However, there is great risk in seeking biomedical research before an area is sufficiently prepared to support it. If mini clusters do not reach maturity, it will be at the expense of the mature clusters. The founding companies imported to seed the mini cluster are often transported from major biotech centers and their absence diminishes the collaborative progress that might otherwise have been achieved in the mature cluster.

The first generation of life science companies in San Diego was founded less than 40 years ago. Because of the long lead-time to bring a drug to market, it is only in the last decade that revenues have begun to rev up. Looking ahead, there will be more drugs approved and future generations of successful companies. While San Diego faces challenges such as rising home prices and crowded freeways, its distinction is that it is part of a broader scientific community: 50 percent of the world's biomedical research and development is done in California.

If San Diego becomes complacent with its successes, momentum will screech to a halt. Our region's future as a biotech cluster depends largely on the people within it. Involvement with the industry and contributing time and expertise to Biocom, Connect and the Economic Development Corp. (EDC), is essential to establishing San Diego more effectively on a national and global biotech stage. San Diego's biotech region is ours to lose. Let's make a difference!

Jacobs is senior vice president of Burnham Life Sciences Group

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