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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Core Expansion

With Amgen at Center, a Growing Role Is Expected for Biotechnology in County

August 13, 2000|MARGARET TALEV | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Already home to the world's largest biotech company, Ventura County is on its way to becoming an increasingly important regional center for the nation's fast-growing biotechnology industry.

And local leaders say the rapid growth in the number of biotech firms here brings with it economic and social benefits for the entire county.

Today, at least 27 biotech and biotech-related companies are doing business in the county, providing about 6,400 local jobs.

The largest of those firms is Amgen Inc. of Thousand Oaks, the biggest biotech company in the world.

But the growing biotech industry that has sprung up around Amgen includes everything from two-man start-up firms to large manufacturers to consultants to distributors of equipment and supplies.

While these companies now provide only about 2% of the jobs countywide, that number is expected to steadily grow. Ten of the county's new biotech companies started in the past three years.

Says Supervisor Frank Schillo, whose district encompasses the bulk of biotech business countywide: "That's really impressive. You couldn't have said that 10 years ago."

Without Amgen, a majority of the county's new biotech companies would not have located in Ventura County.

Some moved here to do business with Amgen. Others wanted to position themselves to lure away Amgen employees. And some of the newest start-up firms were actually founded by former Amgen employees with an entrepreneurial bent.

As some county leaders see it, the growth so far has created a kind of critical mass that could produce

even faster growth in coming years.

"It wouldn't surprise me if that number would double or triple in the next decade," said Handel Evans, president of the planned Cal State Channel Islands campus in Camarillo, due to open in two years as the county's first public four-year university.

"Biotechnology as a science is probably going to be one of the drivers of this new century," Evans continued. "I think the next 10 to 20 years are going to be of earthquake proportions in the quality of our life. When I think of the growth of the biotechnology corridor on the 101 [Ventura Freeway], it's not a question of whether or not it will happen, but of how fast."

Growing Role Seen for Local Biotech Hub

Five years ago county economic development leaders identified biotechnology as an emerging area of economic opportunity for the county, whose growth could be driven by Amgen as well as the biotech industry throughout California.

The San Francisco, San Diego and Los Angeles regions are among the top six national centers for the 1,300 biotech companies now operating in the United States, according to an industry report issued last year.

While no county leader expects the fledgling Ventura County biotech hub to ever approach those areas, many believe the county could be an increasingly significant part of the state's biotech network.

"We're beginning to see a phenomenon," Evans said. "There's a core, like a spiral nebula, that's spinning and spinning, spinning off other companies. It's almost unstoppable. We have the center of that nebula here. It's called Amgen. Then there's the smaller companies. And it's bound to keep going."

Biotechnology is a wide field. One branch includes medical biotech research, the type of work Amgen performs. Another focuses on agriculture and such new areas of science as genetic engineering of crops.

One quality common to all the diverse types of biotech companies is that they are seen as clean alternatives to many declining industries, such as oil production. And that is one reason they appeal to politicians.

It is easier on the environment than smokestack industries, relatively recession-proof and pays well, said Bill Watkins, executive director of the UC Santa Barbara Economic Forecast Project.

Of special importance to the overall social fabric of any community, biotech employees are also usually well-educated. They tend to contribute to charitable organizations, volunteer in schools and participate in civic life.

"People like that do something good for the community," Watkins said. "Individuals like that attract other individuals like that."

Until now, biotech growth in Ventura County has had little to do with any organized efforts. Growth has been more of a simple market dynamic, with companies finding their way here first because of Amgen and then because of the suburban quality of life they quickly discover.

"Whether or not Ventura County was on the bandwagon, the bandwagon got here," said Bruce Wallace, Amgen's first staff employee and the man who actually picked Thousand Oaks as the company's headquarters when it was formed in 1980.

"We're here, other companies are here," he said. "So they're not starting from zero."

While Schillo and others acknowledge county leaders have played only a small role so far in encouraging a biotech hub here, that may be changing.

In recent months two quasi-public groups have begun a more concerted effort to attract more biotech firms.

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