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Regional Hot Spots in Biotech

One of my side interests is moderating a biotechnology career discussion on the Internet, which allows me access to a lot of young people who are aspiring to move into the ranks of "biotechnologists." It is interesting to note that while these prospective scientists and businesspeople are from all parts of the U.S. (and much of Europe), their future prospects look very likely to be limited to certain geographical regions where biotechnology has been fostered. Even after a couple of decades of development, biotech is still a very regionalized industry.

This is often a surprise to graduates of certain college programs in the life sciences. While some state schools and community colleges have biotechnology programs to generate graduates in this future industry, their region of the country may not have the core ingredients necessary to launch a thriving biotech industry in the foreseeable future.

Three Keys To Building a Hot Biotech Infrastructure in Your Region

Three ingredients are necessary in order to foster the growth of biotechnology: Money, technology, and experienced people. While a city in the plains of the Midwest or the deep South of the U.S. could certainly harbor innovative technology, that same location will have a problem finding the local venture capital money required to commercialize it or take it into the startup stage.

Venture capital companies (VCs) are famous for making investments only in the geographical area they are comfortable in. (In my backyard, Arizona, we have difficulty attracting the attention of VCs who are just a few hundred miles away in California.) The venture capitalist also likes to know that any small company in which they invest will have no difficulty recruiting first-rate experienced people. This is where the concept of infrastructure comes in.

The requirement for infrastructure, the combination of the three key ingredients mentioned above, usually means that regions which don't currently have a present infrastructure will have a harder time attracting investments in the future. Strong biotech regions continue to attract the really big startup dollars, and difficulty in recruitment will plague the smaller areas. Regions with infrastructure are like snowballs rolling downhill. Catching up with them becomes quite a task.

Although some midsize cities are becoming more attractive for technology-related or technology-supportive companies (e.g., clinical trials organizations or software testing houses) as described by a recent New York Times article, they still are not viewed as regional hot spots. Yet.

Here are some of the key biotech "hot spots" in the U.S. and comments about their makeup:

New England

The Northeast biotech corridor is anchored by the Boston area. Boston is a very well-developed biotechnology center and certainly runs neck-and-neck with San Francisco as the "home" of biotech in the U.S. Scientists affiliated with Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute for Technology figure prominently in historical descriptions of the birth of biotech.

Because the Northeast has already matured a great deal, there is a sizable number of larger businesses and a nice mix of startup companies. While some of the first biotech companies in the region have managed to stay independent and are now blossoming into full-fledged pharmaceutical companies (Biogen, Genzyme), there are some examples of merger-mania which stand out in New England as well. (Genetics Institute, once an independent biotech concern, is now a healthy and growing part of American Home Products).

The Mid-Atlantic

Biotechnology in the mid-Atlantic stretches from the New York/New Jersey community down to the Baltimore-Washington corridor. The strength of this northern part of the mid-Atlantic biotech region lies in the large pharmaceutical belt concentrated in New Jersey and in the Philadelphia area. In addition, the Philly area has a substantial growth record for startup biotech firms. There is a lot of growth in this region. While the Washington, D.C., market has had a great number of startups, the current situation there isn't as bright. Many companies there have had flat stock performance, so hiring has tapered back quite a bit.

Large pharmaceutical companies in the mid-Atlantic, such as SmithKline Beecham and Merck, remain consistent and eager employers of those on science-centered career tracks. While this career choice remains a very different one than working in the tumultuous (and often exciting) biotech industry, it is a great place to sharpen one's skills.

The Philadelphia area is a great example of what it takes to get a region geared up for big-time biotech. Mark Dibner, founder and director of the Institute for Biotechnology Information, describes Philly's progress in this way:

"Philly had been a second-tier location [for biotech companies]. But, they had the ingredients that it takes to develop into a prime biotechnology haven. They focused those resources effectively. Essential resources include strong local research universities and medical schools, larger corporations with R&D organizations, and regional development efforts--partnerships that have a mutual interest in seeing biotechnology strengthen locally," says Dibner.

The Southeast

Research Triangle Park (RTP) in North Carolina is the only area which is currently considered a "biotech hot spot" in the southeastern U.S. As you examine RTP a bit closer, you'll find that it is a region with a great history of entrepreneurship and innovation. Couple this with a sizable large-company pharmaceutical influence and you have all the makings for continued growth. The state fosters this growth to a great extent, as well.

Glaxo-Wellcome is the substantial pharma element, of course, and despite several rounds of gut-wrenching downsizings following its mega-merger, hiring at the firm appears to be back on track. And a substantial number of scientists and experienced biotech staff available on the job market in RTP have actually been a positive influence on the recruitment effort at about three dozen smaller biotechnology ventures in the region.

The Midwest

The Midwest can be considered a great void in the world of biotechnology. While there aren't currently any large regions as in the coastal areas, there are rays of hope with several distinct markets in the process of heating up.

Cleveland, Ohio, seems to have many of the ingredients necessary to become successful as a biotech haven. But like many Midwest communities, the existing biotech firms have had to locate VC money from outside of town. Until that situation changes, growth will be slower than the city fathers would like. (Some VC firms actually pressure the startup company to "move to the coast.")

Strength in the Midwest comes from several large pharmaceutical company employers, notably Abbott (Chicago), Eli Lilly (Indianapolis), and Pharmacia Upjohn (Kalamazoo, Michigan). Smaller areas like Madison, Wisconsin, are showing some life as well, anchored in this case by supplier firms such as Promega Corp. and a host of other small ventures.

The Southwest

The Southwest is dominated by the emergence of the Houston area as a sizable biotech influence. With a huge biomedical infrastructure, and home-grown VC money starting to appear, Houston and The Woodlands (a planned suburban community) are starting to look like they will have continued bright prospects.

One problem in a community like Houston is that there aren't a lot of large-company employers to hold down scientific unemployment throughout the regular upheavals of the biotech industry (in contrast to the Bay Area). As with Washington, D.C., and other markets, life sciences employment in the Southwest tends to rise and fall with the fiscal health of six to eight publicly held biotech companies.

The Rocky Mountains

Biotechnology in the Rockies exists primarily in the Denver-Boulder area and Salt Lake City, Utah. Amgen is the dominant factor in Colorado, and it has always surprised me why there hasn't been a larger pool of startup companies in that marketplace.

Salt Lake City appears to be an entrepreneurial young biotech city. Although the market here is still very small, this one will probably continue to grow nicely. There is a medical device infrastructure in the community which will aid the biotech industry in certain kinds of desirable employees.

Southern California

San Diego is a biotech paradise. Palm trees, venture capital, all the technology you could dream up, and a tremendous amount of experienced biotechnology personnel who wouldn't think of living anywhere else. What more could you ask for?

Even with a huge infrastructure, San Diego's biotech scene still revolves around companies that have their ups and downs in the stock market. The San Diego market has survived numerous layoffs and downsizings, and there will no doubt be more in the future. But San Diego is also certain to continue explosive growth in the formation of new biotech ventures. As long as money is available, entrepreneurs in the San Diego area will find technology to tap it.

Los Angeles, other than the notable Thousand Oaks area (Amgen), pales in comparison to Orange County, which has all the ingredients necessary to expand their biotech interests a great deal in the next decade.

Northern California

Along with Boston, this is the United State's premiere biotechnology hot spot. While there is a core of our most visible biotech companies located close in to the city, the tendency will be for new startups to be further and further "out" from the Silicon Valley and San Francisco areas. As a result of high costs of living, this region will most likely spread out and become a larger geographical "turf" than most of the other biotech hot spots.

One advantage of living in the San Francisco/Bay Area is that job changes can be accomplished without changing zip codes!

The Pacific Northwest

While there are a handful of companies in locations outside of Seattle (notably in Portland or surrounding areas), the home of the latte is the primary home of the region's biotech interests. Seattle employers include large pharmaceutical companies (Immunex) as well as healthy independents.

While any biotech region can suffer short-term setbacks which might affect employment prospects (one major biotech employer's stock recently dropped to $2 from a former high of $40), Seattle is an entrepreneur's town. There also has been an abundance of Microsoft-generated VC money.

Author's note: My apologies to any bubbling biotech region, Arizona included, who didn't get mentioned in this article.

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