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Clearing a Revolution's Path

September 20, 1998

Caltech's announcement last week that it had received $18 million from businessman Eli Broad to develop a 100-acre "corridor" of biotechnology firms in Pasadena is the latest sign of the Los Angeles region's robust new commitment to the rapidly growing industry.

Also last week, Cal State Northridge announced plans to build an $80-million biotechnology research park on its campus, while earlier this year USC and UCLA received $100 million each from physicist Alfred Mann to establish biomedical research campuses. The Claremont Colleges also began building a new biomedical institute.

Biotechnology "has the greatest potential to significantly improve the human condition in the coming century," says Broad, and that's no hyperbole. Most scientists agree that biotechnology--the use of gene splicing, sequencing and other genetic engineering tools to make prescription drugs, enhance agricultural crops and attack disease--will be the mother lode of the next technological revolution.

But while Los Angeles-area universities are embracing the revolution heartily, they are also tardy. According to a recent UC study, 327 of the state's 391 biotech firms are in the Bay Area and San Diego County. Only 46 are based in Los Angeles or Orange counties. The imbalance is largely due to the kind of infrastructure needed for biotechnology's growth--an academic culture open to the idea of collaborating with industry and an intricate network of scientists, lawyers and venture capitalists. This developed far earlier in the Bay Area and San Diego than it did in Los Angeles.

Way back in 1976, UC San Francisco professor Herbert Boyer started the biotech revolution when he and venture capitalist Robert Swanson became partners to develop recombinant DNA technology, which enables scientists to manipulate the genetic code that tells human, animal and plant cells what to do.

Unlike most university professors in America at the time, Bay Area academics saw nothing wrong with Boyer's business ties because Bay Area computer science professors had forged similar ties with Silicon Valley industry in the 1960s. In contrast, at UCLA in the mid-1970s, according to the university's own vice chancellor, C. Kumar Patel, "If a faculty member wanted to get involved in a start-up company he or she almost had to leave the university . . . and that created an enormous barrier."

Professors have good reason to be cautious about entering close partnerships with industry. By discouraging researchers from sharing information that might prove to be lucrative, profit motives could inhibit the sharing of knowledge that is essential to discovery.

Universities should take care that industry contracts do not restrict academic inquiry. Success in the increasingly competitive field of biotechnology will, after all, lie in more than just hiring good patent lawyers and building new research labs. It will lie in enlightened state policies to keep biotech firms in the state, like Gov. Pete Wilson's successful effort this year to fund an "infrastructure and economic development bank" to extend low-interest loans to such firms. It will lie in flexible local governments like Pasadena's, which approved zoning changes this year to help Caltech develop its biotech corridor.

Most important, it will lie in the willingness of the region's universities to make substantial investments in the areas of basic academic research that spark biotech innovation, namely molecular and cell biology, genetics and information technology. Just the kinds of investments that the recent gifts from Broad, Mann and others will make possible.

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