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JAMES FLANIGAN ON SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA

Potential Cure : Biomedical Could Be a Salve for Region's Economy

November 13, 1996|JAMES FLANIGAN

Southern California's biomedical industry, which boasts more research and production than anywhere in the world, may be on the verge of an even greater burst of innovation and development.

Such a prospect could be a huge shot in the arm for an economy still trying to make up for the loss of aerospace jobs.

Evidence of these prospects is widespread. William Opel, executive director of the Huntington Medical Research Institutes, wants Pasadena to support the building of a biomedical complex where entrepreneurial companies could share laboratory space and other services as they got started.

A "community of science," Opel calls the idea, which he has pressed for more than 10 years. Now it could become reality as the Pasadena City Council votes in January on a redevelopment plan that would provide fiber-optic utility lines and other laboratory facilities for privately financed new buildings. Cost to Pasadena taxpayers: roughly $35 million.

The return would be many times that, says Caltech professor John Baldeschwieler, who has founded several biotech companies himself. Baldeschwieler reckons such a development could bring $500 million in payrolls and other economic multipliers to the Pasadena area.

Caltech itself is kicking off a four-year effort to raise $100 million to expand its biological sciences research and teaching efforts.

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Talk about an idea whose time has come! UCLA wants to see an incubator complex built for entrepreneurs from its programs.

Rep. Howard Berman (D-Panorama City) envisions that UCLA biomedical complex being built on the site of the old General Motors plant in Van Nuys. And Berman has gained the backing of Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan for the idea, although UCLA itself remains noncommittal.

In Orange County, incubator facilities are already expanding on the UC Irvine campus. The county's Life Sciences Industry Council (LINC), a private industry group, wants to see more.

And the Claremont Colleges plan to build a seventh college devoted to bioscience and engineering.

Is all this enthusiasm just a fad--another "son of aerospace" for a region yearning for new industry? No, not at all. Biomedical--a business ranging from companies that synthesize genetic compounds to those that manufacture medical instruments--is already one of the state's largest and most successful industries.

What is needed now is support for that industry as it stands on the verge of tremendous development. The next four years will see completion of projects to map the human gene system and will spark a further surge in biotech breakthroughs and companies.

Potentially that is tremendous news for Southern California because "more biomedical manufacturing goes on here than anywhere in the world," says David Anast, publisher of the Costa Mesa-based Biomedical Market Newsletter.

In fact, "more National Institutes of Health research funding comes to Los Angeles and Orange counties than to Northern California or San Diego," says Ahmed Enany, executive director of the Southern California Biomedical Council, a group of 40 biotech, law and finance companies.

Yet Northern California, with UC Berkeley and Stanford plus Silicon Valley's venture capital, is better recognized for biotech opportunity. And San Diego, where the Connect program brings together scientists and business people, is renowned for biotech.

In this region, too often "there is no link between the best of science and the local economy," says a prominent USC professor. And that hurts the economy.

Young companies spawned by Caltech and UCLA don't get the help start-ups need. "Purchasing--a simple thing like purchasing equipment--takes time and effort, which are scarce in a company of eight people," says Thomas Theriault, president of Combion Inc. a new firm, born out of Caltech, that invented a device to analyze hundreds of genes simultaneously.

Combion could have used an incubator. So could Faiz Kayyem, head of Clinical Micro Sensors, a new Pasadena company that brings DNA testing to clinical applications. Kayyem moved into premises vacated by a failed company and so inherited equipment that would have cost up to $500,000, a prohibitive hurdle for a start-up.

The kind of biomedical corridor envisioned by Opel and Baldeschwieler would help Theriault and Kayyem and help more companies to start up by offering shared facilities for lab work and legal and business services.

It would have a multiplier effect, says Opel, who envisions biomedical production replacing a now idle Pasadena power plant.

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Indeed, given the concentration of brainpower in that area of Pasadena, it's surprising that an industrial center has not grown up before now. Huntington Medical Research Institutes, an independent organization attached to Huntington Memorial Hospital, is doing $4.5 million worth of research a year on such wonders as electronic implants to restore damaged nerves and ways to strengthen the immune system against cancer.

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