If showing up is half the battle, then the other half, by extension, is doing something once you get there.
In 2004, only one biotech firm had a San Francisco address. Today, about 60 companies employing 2,750 people are located within the city limits. And a sizable subset of those firms is clustered at UCSF’s Mission Bay campus, which is serving as a catalyst to the booming biotechnology industry, according to a June 2010 economic impact report.
Yet, with increased recognition that it takes more than physical proximity to forge productive partnerships, UCSF Chancellor Susan Desmond-Hellmann, MD, MPH, and others involved with the Mission Bay campus convened recently to brainstorm on how to improve the synergy between the University and the biotech community.
The number of companies – ranging from tiny start-ups to large commercial firms – on and around the Mission Bay campus is 29 and counting, with another two to four requests a week to join the QB3 Garage. “We’re seeing spectacular growth,” said Regis Kelly, PhD, director of the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences (QB3), the UC-sponsored research and commercialization magnet.
In late June, Kelly co-moderated a brainstorming panel as part of an event sponsored by QB3, BayBio, the Northern California trade group for life sciences firms, Bayer, Merck and M Squared Consulting. The panel included Desmond-Hellmann; Brook Byers, a partner at the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, who has made generous donations to the Mission Bay campus; Uwe Schoenbeck, PhD, of Pfizer; and Gail Maderis, president and CEO of BayBio.
The discussion revolved mostly around ways to enrich and accelerate collaboration between private companies and the University. “There’s a recognition that we need to see them come together in a way that’s more effective than the best way I’ve ever seen, which is scientist to scientist,” Desmond-Hellmann said. But the scientist-to-scientist approach, she added, is not very scalable and depends too much on serendipity – chance encounters in the Red Carpet Club, say, or at a cocktail reception.
When thinking about the potential for productive working relationships between industry and academia, Desmond-Hellmann said, “I always think of it as a Venn diagram, and there’s a pretty big section where there’s overlap.”
The most important area of overlap, said the chancellor, is access to innovation. “Innovation is what industry needs and what academia does every day,” she said.
The challenge, she said, is making innovation resonate for companies, which often think differently from the way scientists think.
In the early 1990s, when then Mayor Willie Brown persuaded the city of San Francisco to give UCSF 13 acres on which to build a new campus, it was with the recognition that the University could be “the flower to attract the worker bees,” said Douglas Crawford, PhD, QB3’s associate director. And it worked. “We’ve become the lure for others to move from considerably cheaper space,” he said.
Drug companies no longer do so much of their drug development in isolation, Crawford said. The larger pharmaceutical firms are now putting their research centers “where there’s a free exchange of information, very high-quality people and intellectual vitality you don’t find when you’re isolating your research,” he said.
As the economy improves and companies scout for locations near cutting-edge research, momentum is starting to build.
At the Mission Bay Incubator Network, there are currently 19 start-ups, with another five in the QB3 Garage. Among midsized and large commercial firms, the UCSF campus can count five – Bayer HealthCare, Presidio Pharmaceuticals, Sirna Therapeutics (which is owned by Merck), Celgene and FibroGen.
Mission Bay got a big boost recently when German pharmaceutical giant Bayer HealthCare announced plans to found its US Innovation Center, to employ 65 researchers, at Mission Bay.
“It’s a very important validation for us to have Bayer come and hang their sign on our door,” Crawford said. “They clearly agree that this is an epicenter of innovation.”
Other companies are of the same opinion. Nektar Therapeutics is planning to move to San Francisco from San Carlos, and by the end of the year will be sharing a building with Bayer.
Yet, as Desmond-Hellmann and others have pointed out, proximity isn’t enough.
“The biggest challenge is bringing the two cultures together,” she said. With companies, she added, bringing her 14 years of experience at Genentech to bear on the topic, there is “a sense of urgency to get in front of the FDA because that’s their ticket, whereas in academia, we have an eternal quest and curiosity for knowledge.”
This adds up to “a pretty big impediment in terms of outcome measurement,” she said. “But I think that cultural difference can be bridged.”
If any place is set up to do that, it’s Mission Bay. “There needs to be a sense of urgency that what we do at UCSF matters,” Desmond-Hellmann said. “If we make discoveries, those discoveries need to get to humans.”