Dr. Daniel Hollander has been struggling for almost two years to get the Los Angeles City Council to approve the mere idea of a 58-acre biomedical research park in San Pedro.
Hollander, president and chief executive of the Harbor-UCLA Research and Education Institute, wants to build a UCLA facility on a portion of a 121-acre abandoned Navy property. He has waited while a development plan for the land was kicked around in a series of council subcommittees, taken to the council, then tossed back to subcommittees.
The City Council was expected to vote on a final land-use plan on April 16. Regardless of the outcome, Hollander believes the protracted experience illustrates why Los Angeles may never emerge as the biotech powerhouse that local government and industry groups say it should be.
"Either way, the Los Angeles area has missed the boat completely," Hollander said. "Cities like San Diego, Palo Alto and Irvine have been light years ahead of Los Angeles. Those city governments have gone out of their way to facilitate major parks, while our city has gone out of its way to scuttle any such attempt. L.A. has the scientists, the knowledge and the know-how to make the city a major force in the biomedical industry, but not only do we not get help, we get impeded."
Hollander is not alone in grumbling about the slow maturation process of L.A.'s biomedical community. Government and financial holdups on various biotech-related development projects abound, and some scientists express frustration that their research endeavors are often far below the city leadership's radar.
A closer examination of the local biotech industry reveals that some of the complaints are justified, and some aren't. While there are problems, there is also marked progress.
If one conclusion can be drawn, it's that public incentives are seldom enough to build an industry.
The biggest impediment, according to both scientists and business executives, is that the public- and private-sector groups dedicated to developing a biotech industry have yet to find a good way to join forces.
"Southern California is not used to working together as a team to create tech initiatives, unlike other cities," said William Lyte, founder of the Pasadena Technoplex Program and advisory committee chairman for the Altadena-based Los Angeles County Business Technology Center. "The people running the various programs are just learning how to do that, and it will take time. These are very complicated industries, and they will take longer to get going than some observers may expect."
In fairness, it took Silicon Valley 40 years of evolution and San Diego 10 years to get to their preeminent biotech positions. Los Angeles has only been in the game for a few years.
Public-private efforts to stimulate the biotech industry usually take the form of incubators and industry corridors. Cities set aside targeted redevelopment zones, pay for improvements in the area like fiber-optic cable, and offer incentives for biotech businesses to move in all of which is typically paid for through tax-increment financing.
The Pasadena Biotech and Technology Corridor is one such program. But a full year has passed since it was created by the Pasadena City Council, and not a single development project has been announced there.
"We're getting close, but it's been slow," said Eric Duyshart, business development manager for the city of Pasadena. "The city is supportive, but we're not taking the primary role. We took the first step. Now leadership has to come from the private sector."
Duyshart said the city has seen a couple of serious proposals to build wet labs used for biotech research, but nothing is expected to be definitively announced before this summer.
Another public-private effort is the Los Angeles County Business Technology Center in Altadena, an incubator funded mainly by federal grants that targets all types of high-tech firms (including biotech).
But the center is only about 40 percent occupied after opening on Oct. 25. There are several start-up companies on the waiting list to get space in the building, but the process is slow. Hopeful tenants first have to undergo a rigorous screening process, in the hopes that those selected will be long-term successes.
Some private sector developments are moving more smoothly.
Officials with Duarte-based City of Hope decided to move their cancer-related biotechnology R & D; in-house about three years ago, and will soon complete a 20,000-square-foot facility to house various projects. Many expect the center will emerge as the cornerstone in a cluster of biomedical companies.
"Down the line, we may pursue developing more biotech facilities in the region since we're lucky that we have the physical opportunity out here," said Dr. John Kovach, executive vice president for medical and scientific affairs at the City of Hope. "We also think that smaller companies that may have proprietary research but not our in-house expertise may settle within hailing distance."
Meanwhile, entrepreneur Alfred Mann is on his own quest to turn Los Angeles into a biotech center. But even his efforts ran into trouble when they came in contact with officials from government organizations.
Mann, chief executive of Sylmar-based MiniMed Inc., offered $100 million grants both to publicly owned UCLA and privately owned USC to fund the creation of biomedical research centers. But at UCLA, the grant has yet to be awarded, as university officials plow through red tape.
At USC, some of the fund has already been used to hire new biomedical faculty, and the university is close to announcing a director for the new Alfred E. Mann Institute for Biomedical Engineering, according to USC Associate Dean George Bekey. The institute will launch before year's end, and will move into a new complex that USC hopes to build within four years.
Mann also is working with the Veterans Administration in West L.A. and with Pierce College to organize biomedical centers there.
Another prominent L.A. philanthropist, SunAmerica's Eli Broad, gave Caltech $18 million to build a new center for biological sciences on campus.
"When you have highly publicized commitments being made to biotech like Eli Broad's and Al Mann's, you can't help but have a spillover effect," said Caltech spokesman Hall Daily. "It lifts the level of biotech support, and acts as a magnet to get more people involved."
The consortium of Claremont Colleges in the San Gabriel Valley recently founded a new college dedicated to biomedical work. The Keck Graduate Institute of Applied Life Sciences was founded in 1997 with a $50 million grant from the W.M. Keck Foundation.
As private and educational sectors pick up steam, the last missing puzzle part remains venture capital. While there are some success stories most notably Cyrano Sciences, Clinical MicroSensors and Xencor Inc., all based in Pasadena the amount of venture capital coming into Southern California's biotech firms is still eclipsed by Northern California.
Tired of waiting for the Sand Hill Road venture capitalists to change their tactics, local groups are mobilizing their own efforts.
Sisskind recently started Angeles Ventures, a Westwood-based venture fund earmarked specifically for local biomedical companies. Also, the Southern California Biomedical Council is in the process of seeking capital for its new angel group. The fund, which is expected to be incorporated by July, will provide "engine" capital to help build local biotech startups.
"We wanted to ease the problem of capital access," said council Executive Director Ahmed Enany. "The industry may be progressing quietly, but it is indeed progressing. This should help it along."
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