Permits moved through local channels in a manner of months--lightning speed compared with some municipalities. The City Council had earmarked some areas for industrial development even before the biotechs came calling, which meant that companies only had to work with city staff to clear land, building, zoning and environmental permits.
The process was a big relief to Chiron, which had become mired in a three-year battle in Emeryville to get approval to expand its headquarters.
"It's easier to get things done in Vacaville," said Nelson Hiner, manager of Chiron's plant.
In 1992, the company needed to build a factory quickly. Clinical tests on an experimental growth hormone were nearly done. Assuming regulators gave approval, the company had to start making the drug immediately on a contract with Johnson & Johnson.
Vacaville officials approved the company's plans, then went out of their way to calm residents when fears arose over the possible risks of having a biotech plant nearby.
At one of several discussion sessions with residents, questions came up about the plant's use of phosphoric acid. Mayor David Fleming stood up, popped open a Pepsi can, drank it, read the label, and said, "You know, there's phosphoric acid in this, and it didn't hurt me a bit."
The town's biggest catch so far is Genentech. The South San Francisco company has invested $250 million to put up a 365,000-square-foot plant on 100 acres of former pastureland.
For Genentech, the town helped amass a package of financial incentives--$12 million in state and local funds for training employees; up to $5 million in rebates on various taxes and licensing fees; a promise to ration the company's water only during an emergency, and the usual fast-track service.
While the package helped land Genentech, Vacaville's proximity to South San Francisco was critical.
The town is a 60- to 90-minute commute from the company's headquarters, which is also the center of its manufacturing know-how. The short distance will make it easier to replicate the production processes developed at its South San Francisco factory.
Inside, the South San Francisco factory resembles a cross between an immense clean room and a brewery. A small frozen vial of cells, cloned from hamster ovaries, is thawed, mixed with a nutrient-rich broth, and it multiplies for several weeks. Each cell is itself a tiny factory that has been genetically altered to make new drugs to treat diseases such as non-Hodgkin's lymphoma.
More than 10 miles of pipes deliver vast amounts of water, oxygen and heat for growing cells, or remove waste. Gowned workers tend to a multitude of control panels across the floor and the catwalks, checking the soup's contents, pressure, water quality and temperature.
If all goes well, that original vial of cells will yield drugs with a retail value of more than $1 million. But 10% of the time, impurities or other troubles are discovered, and a batch gets tossed.
Currently, 20 engineers from headquarters are working in Vacaville to make sure the process is properly cloned.
So far, both town and company officials maintain the other side is living up to expectations. But nothing's perfect.
As expected, Alza found manufacturing workers in greater supply in Vacaville than the Bay Area, but labor costs were a bit higher than projected. "The direct labor costs are somewhat lower than the Bay Area, but the difference is 10%, not 15% as expected," said Alza's Fulscher.
Similarly, Alza hoped to recruit scientists from Sacramento and nearby UC Davis at salaries below Bay Area rates. "But that didn't happen much," he said.
What's more, highly paid executives, transplanted from elsewhere, have found Vacaville short on upscale lifestyle.
Michael Paulik, Alza's top executive in Vacaville, is living 57 miles away in Blackhawk. He couldn't find a home in Vacaville to replace the one he sold four years ago in suburban Philadelphia for more than $750,000.
"There are very few upscale communities or locations for executive management in this area," Paulik said.
For Vacaville, jobs at Chiron haven't been as bountiful as expected. When the company originally bought its 51 acres of pastureland, it planned to put up two plants.
But one, a product filling operation, was canceled. As is common in the biotechnology industry these days, Chiron became partners with drug giant Ciba-Geigy, which had a plant on the East Coast to accommodate the filling activities.
The industry's influence on local education has raised some eyebrows too.
James DeKloe, a Solano College biology professor, trained for several months at Genentech's South San Francisco headquarters to develop the college's vocational training program for the biotech industry. Fellow academics claimed the college would be subsidizing the industry's training requirement. And they worried that investment in costly equipment necessary to train students might be money misspent on "today's technology, tomorrow's buggy whip," he said.