CLSI in North Bay Business Journal News: ‘Fertile soil for biotech’: Solano County’s Vacaville preps global pitch for firms to plant roots there
By JEFF QUACKENBUSH | NORTH BAY BUSINESS JOURNAL
March 26, 2019
Vacaville is hustling to attract more life sciences companies, looking to grow its cluster of such high-paying employers with the pitch of ample buildable land, lower-cost housing and an increasing pool of skilled labor.
As Solano Community College this spring will be turning out the first graduates from its nationally trend-setting biotechnology program, the city’s economic boosters are getting help from local employers for a pitchathon in June at the biggest biotechnology conference in the world. Over 16,000 professionals from around the world are set to attend Bio, held in Philadelphia this year and in San Diego for 2020.
South San Francisco-based Genentech opened its Vacaville plant in the mid-1990s, and its sprawling production facility is the most visible sign of biotech in the northern Solano County city of about 100,000. But the city also has attracted other life sciences manufacturers and product developers.
On the product development side are DesigneRx, which is in clinical trials for treatments after a decade and a half of work, and Novici, a longtime local stalwart whose tech helps accelerate R&D. In manufacturing beyond Genentech is Cupertino-based Durect Corporation, which has a 24,000-square-foot Vacaville facility to complement one of similar size in Birmingham, Alabama.
The latest newcomer, also in biomanufacturing, is RxD Nova Pharmaceuticals. Formed two years ago with the help of Chinese backers, the company is in the process of recertifying the 52-acre former Kairon, Novartis and Eli Lilly plant at 2010 Cessna Drive. The 74,000-square-foot building closed in 2015 and has 28 acres available for expansion.
Biotech is one of four target areas for the city’s newly revamped economic vitality strategy, also including advanced manufacturers such as Icon Aircraft, food processors, and logistics companies such as Amazon. Governments at many levels in California developed such plans after the Great Recession and subsequent loss of redevelopment agency funds to fill budgetary holes in Sacramento in 2012.
“We’re getting the word out that we have fertile soil for biotech,” said Don Burrus, economic development manager.
That soil is both literal and figurative. The city has master-planned over 1,100 acres of land in Interchange Industrial Park, which fronts on Interstate 505 and is a quarter-mile from an exit from Interstate 80, two corridors connecting the Sacramento and San Francisco Bay metropolitan areas. After nearly two decades of little action because municipal services such as water and sewer didn’t extend to that area, the city in the past two years fronted funds to prep 157 acres with needed public infrastructure.
With those improvements going in, Buzz Oates Group of Companies and Sierra Pacific Properties have put roughly 4 million square feet of projects on the boards, with some already under construction, according to Burrus.
With little new industrial development on the San Francisco Peninsula south through Silicon Valley, the cost of industrial rents has widened the spread between those of Solano and of the central Bay Area to a few dollars per square foot monthly, Burrus said.
Affordability for entrepreneur and employee was one of the reasons the predecessor of Novici set up shop in Vacaville in the late 1980s as one of the bioneers of the cluster, according to Hal Padgett, Ph.D., chief executive and technical officer.
“That, I think, has remained one of the chief advantages of being out here,” Padgett said. “Homes are easier to obtain. It is more of a suburban, relaxed lifestyle, with a little bit more space. You just don’t have all the pressures of the more urban and money-saturated environments.”
He said he just got off a call with a prospective employee who just purchased a home in Solano and is commuting to South San Francisco.
“I’m not offended that employees say they want to work at Novici because it’s a better life in terms of the commute,” Padgett said. “Part of the bargain is employees have the chance to pursue their professional goals without commuting four hours a day, and they can pursue their personal lives as well.”
And South San Francisco isn’t as far away for conferences and presentations as it used to be, with the emergence of videoconferencing technology, Padgett said.
Padgett first came to Vacaville with BioSource Genetics, which later became publicly traded Large Scale Biology and liquidated in 2005. Padgett and a group of colleagues in court acquired BioSource’s key GRAMMR technology for reshuffling genes and using plant cells to produce pharmaceuticals and other products on an industrial scale. That process has been licensed to others, namely Life Technology.
Major types of facilities in the life sciences industry are research-and-development facilities and manufacturing plants. A key factor for R&D site selection and development of an industry cluster is proximity to an academic center with top scientists and tech, according to Steve Karp. He is executive director of innovation services for the California Life Sciences Institute, the nonprofit education and workforce development arm of the California Life Science Association. While Karp mainly works with advisory groups to small startups, his career includes a stint at Genentech around the time the South San Francisco-based biotech pioneer was building the 450,000-square-foot cell culture plant 2 expansion to its Vacaville manufacturing plant, finished in 2005.
Startups would tend to form and incubate near a research institution such as the University of California, Davis, a top center for agriculture-related pursuits, Karp said.
“They need access to expensive analytical capabilities that small or growing companies can’t afford,” he said. “They are not going to spend $100,000 on an instrument they may use only once a month.”
While renting time in university laboratories is a boon, a bigger boost comes from being able to exchange ideas with scientists with deep knowledge in the startups’ focus areas, Karp said.
For life sciences manufacturing, the cost of doing business in an area is key, he said.
Read more at NBBJ.