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THE TECH COAST

Unfrenzied Lifestyle Draws Scientists and Engineers

March 09, 1998|P.J. HUFFSTUTTER and BARBARA MARSH | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

VALLEY/VENTURA — When it comes to the current technology boom, the San Fernando Valley and Ventura County are perhaps the region's best-kept secrets.

Head north along the Ventura Freeway, where the suburban sprawl and industrial landscape give way to rolling hills and bedroom communities. There are several big players on this side of the hill--think GTE and biotechnology giant Amgen.

No single field drives the growth in this increasingly diverse region. A mix of small computer and biomedical companies straddle the 101 corridor and percolate in Chatsworth's Silicon Ranch.

Here, workers often regard L.A. and its frenzied pace with disdain.

"Land is cheap, the schools are good, and we're still within an hour's drive to see a Dodger game," says Brian Farrell, chief executive of THQ, a computer game publisher in Calabasas. "Why work in Los Angeles proper if you don't have to?"

That's clearly Amgen's tale.

The company that exploded into the biotech industry's biggest success launched itself in 1980, mostly on scientific brainpower from Caltech and UCLA. The founders considered, then dismissed, the idea of locating in Pasadena, near Caltech.

George Rathmann, then chief executive, says one of the UCLA scientists insisted on a site distant from the city's smog, high housing costs and weak elementary schools. "All of these things had a trend line that was favorable as you left the city," recalled Rathmann, now chief executive of ICOS in Bothell, Wash.

The company chose Thousand Oaks, then a small, sleepy town near the Santa Monica Mountains. There its scientists hit upon two blockbuster drugs--Epogen, to treat anemia, and Neupogen, which helps prevent infection for cancer patients after chemotherapy.

Annual sales of both drugs mushroomed to more than $1 billion annually. Amgen is now Ventura County's biggest private employer, with a local work force of 3,500.

Being relatively isolated has drawbacks, of course. Chairman and Chief Executive Gordon Binder acknowledges that he must pay more to recruit scientists from out of state. "If we recruit a scientist, he has to sell his house, call a moving van, take the kids out of school. It's a lot of work."

The upside: Once he's got them, they stay. "Retention is better. We like that."

Nearby Chatsworth is also drawing high-tech firms. When the area's flourishing aerospace industry dried up in the early '90s, the community was a natural place for out-of-work executives to launch their start-ups.

After all, mixed-use industrial space in Chatsworth's business parks costs as much as 25% less than in high-profile Warner Center in Woodland Hills, analysts say.

Peripherals and support services for computer manufacturers mean big business out here for firms such as MRV Communications, whose laser diodes and fiber-optic transmitters speed data through phone lines.

Northward, the Valley's "tech corridor" stretching along the Ventura Freeway from Calabasas through Camarillo is enjoying fast growth in manufacturing--such as cable boxes, network devices and laptop modems--and among computer game developers. The area is luring a stream of mature executives looking for a slower pace of life.

"We're not recruiting twentysomethings. We want people who have been working in their field for 10 years," said Douglas Hill, a spokesman for Xylan in Calabasas, a leader in computer networking. "For these folks, good schools are a lot more important than being 10 minutes away from Spago."

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