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THE CUTTING EDGE

Bio-burg

Rural Vacaville has managed to create a biotechnology cluster, luring several industry giants from the Bay Area.

June 15, 1998|BARBARA MARSH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VACAVILLE, Calif. — This old rural town, known mostly for its state prison, is quietly making a name for itself in the cutting-edge world of biotechnology.

In recent years, Bay Area giants Chiron Corp. and Alza Corp. put up plants across the street from each other on the east side of town.

To the southeast, Genentech Corp. is erecting what could be the industry's biggest factory. "This is our site for future manufacturing--not just for the next few years but the next 50," says Frank Jackson, the plant manager.

These businesses didn't choose Vacaville by accident. They all found the living easier--and costs lower--than in the Bay Area 50 miles to the southwest.

But the city of Vacaville also made it hard to say no.

"We consciously set out to make these people not just satisfied but so happy that they actually will be salesmen for us," said Michael Palombo, the town's manager of economic development.

Next year, assuming Genentech's plant opens on time, Vacaville will boast 1,100 biotech workers. "Is that a lot? No," said Palombo, "but it's a good start."

Indeed, experts predict that Vacaville's biotech cluster is likely to pull in other plants, as well as attract suppliers.

And the timing couldn't be better, industry experts say. This clean, high-paying industry figures to grow, as rising numbers of experimental drugs get cleared for sale.

Vacaville's experience reveals some of the rewards, as well as risks, awaiting communities that link their futures to advances in life sciences.

Unlike other towns, Vacaville went after factory jobs rather than the industry's flashier research and development workers, who command higher salaries. R & D facilities, however, don't generate as many tax dollars, says Palombo.

To be sure, factories also require highly paid scientists, engineers and quality-control specialists. But they also employ more high school or community college graduates for such jobs as technicians and systems operators.

As more local workers become trained for industry jobs, more biotech business will probably consider setting up shop in Vacaville, said Gary Fulscher, senior vice president at Alza. It's a finicky, highly regulated, hyper-clean industry that produces drugs and related items. And employers are passionate about finding trained workers who can master government-approved processing standards.

To accommodate the anticipated demand, Solano College in Fairfield has set up a satellite program across the street from Genentech to train students for biotech work. The first 50 enrollees range in age from younger than 21 to 55. Two are PhDs, and one is a retired physician.

Still, it's hard to predict how many new jobs will materialize in an industry that must adjust to technological change, regulatory approvals and global consolidation.

Overall, the industry can claim only a handful of sizable, profitable companies, so potential job growth for communities might be limited. "The danger of focusing on biotechnology work is that there are not very many companies in it," Palombo said. "You have to be careful that you don't think that, by itself, it's a panacea, because it's not."

*

Vacaville's first industry catch was small fry--Biosource Technologies.

In 1987, young scientists who founded the Sunnyvale company wanted lab space to develop ways of using plant viruses to make drugs. They were tired of the Bay Area's high living costs and wanted an affordable place to raise their families.

Scientists thrive on research, ingenuity and imagination, notes David R. McGee, the company's senior vice president. "[But] we have to be satisfied at the end of the day," he added, recalling that at that time, a new four-bedroom home in Vacaville could be purchased for $150,000, about half the cost of a three-bedroom fixer-upper in Sunnyvale.

The company, which relocated its corporate headquarters, now employs 40 scientists and support people in Vacaville.

When Biosource landed, Vacaville wasn't looking for biotech jobs especially. It was happy for any business that promised to reduce its historical dependence on government employment.

A military center for decades, Vacaville had seen employment decline at nearby Travis Air Force Base during the massive downsizing of the military and defense industries. Eventually, the naval shipyard on Mare Island, which also drew workers from Vacaville, also closed.

City officials were determined to lure employers who could provide enough jobs for any resident who wanted to work.

Biosource led to bigger fish--Alza in 1987, Chiron in 1993, and now Genentech. Unlike Biosource, the others built major factories.

In each case, the town's welcoming attitude gave it an edge over competing locales.

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