Amgen Inc. may be the world's premier biotech company, but to the dismay of many in the L.A. biotech community it has yet to become the same type of magnet that anchored explosions in other parts of the nation.

While the biotech giant has been a driving force in the economy of Thousand Oaks, where its 3.8 million-square-foot campus is located, Amgen has yet to spark a noticeable increase in the number of biotech firms in the broader L.A. area.

George Rathmann, who became chairman and chief executive of the company after its founding in 1980, said he and other Amgen officials set out to play a significant role in promoting the biotech industry nationally and within California. But sparking the growth of a concentrated biotech industry in L.A. was never the idea.

"It's a little bit hard to get focused on local geography with an industry that spans the country like biotech does," said Rathmann, who left the company in 1988. "We located ourselves in Thousand Oaks and had absolutely no need for another biotech company."

Indeed, being secluded in the rolling hills of Thousand Oaks has allowed Amgen to provide a suburban way of life for its employees while essentially keeping its corporate head in the lab for the past 20 years.

That's a distressing situation for some biotech officials.

For all the praise lavished on Amgen, Ahmed Enany, executive director of the Southern California Biomedical Council, said he has been disappointed by what he sees as the company's indifference toward the L.A. area. He thinks Amgen should be using its success to promote the region as a destination for other biotech firms.

"Firms have civic responsibilities," Enany said. "(Amgen) takes care of Thousand Oaks, but that's the extent of it. In terms of the overall region, they sort of keep to themselves."

Amgen spokesman David Kaye said the company set up in Thousand Oaks primarily because of quality-of-life issues and also because of the relative accessibility to medical research facilities at Caltech in Pasadena, UCLA and UC Santa Barbara. (Those institutions, however, are each at least 30 miles away from the biotech giant.)

In addition, Amgen's emergence as a biotech giant in the 1990s came well after other areas like San Diego, the Bay Area and Cambridge, Mass., had already established themselves as the nation's biotech hot spots.

Regardless, Amgen thrives. Largely on the strength of two products, Epogen and Neupogen, Amgen has shot to the top of the biotech world, eclipsing $1 billion in net income last year and employing 6,000 people at its local facility and a total of 7,000 worldwide.

A group of scientists and venture capitalists founded Amgen in 1980, officially opening for business the following year with $19 million from investors. With Rathmann at the helm, Amgen went public in 1983 and had subsequent stock offerings in 1986 and 1987.

Epogen was Amgen's initial product. It hit the market in 1989 as a way to stimulate and regulate the critical production of red blood cells. The Food and Drug Administration in 1991 approved a first use for Neupogen, which stimulates the growth of infection-fighting white blood cells. A third product, Infergen, gained market clearance in 1997 as a way to battle hepatitis infection.

In 1988, Amgen named Gordon Binder as Rathmann's successor in the chief executive spot. In the following years, the company moved into markets in Australia and Canada (1991) and Hong Kong and Japan (1992). Kevin Sharer, who joined Amgen in 1992 as president and chief financial officer, succeeded Binder as chief executive in May of this year.

Rohit Shukla, president and CEO of the Los Angeles Regional Technology Alliance, attributes much of Amgen's success to the leadership of Rathmann and Binder. It was their planning and management skills, Shukla said, that sustained the company through transitions in the CEO's chair and in the laboratory.

Binder said the company is making increased efforts to support the biotech industry.

"Amgen has been very, very aggressive in working with smaller companies and looking for opportunities," Binder said. "That's been worldwide. I don't think Amgen has any obligation to start new companies."

Unique undertaking

Janet Levett, president and CEO of the Thousand Oaks-WestlakeVillage Regional Chamber of Commerce, said the trickle-down effect of Amgen is a real economic force in the local community.

"It's creating jobs here and creating commerce," Levett said. "Their employees need to live. They eat; they sleep; they shop."

But Shukla pointed out that the dynamics of the biotech world and drug development in particular are far different than the forces at work in the dot-com industry that has led to so much clustering.

Development of drugs to solve age-old ailments such as anemia, arthritis and cancer takes years of research and years of regulatory hoop-jumping. It requires a company's complete attention, which can take away from any efforts to promote industry growth in the region.

Still, Levett said Amgen's success and worldwide reputation are useful marketing tools when she sits down with representatives of companies considering setting up operations along the booming 101 Tech Corridor.

Today, the company is in a hiring frenzy, with several products in the pipeline that have the potential to be medical blockbusters. In addition to IL-1ra, which is aimed at controlling rheumatoid arthritis, researchers are working through various stages of development on drugs that could regulate the body's production of testosterone and estrogen.

Also in development is KGF, which is designed to reduce the severity and duration of tissue damage caused by some cancer treatments; Leptin, which could help treat obesity; and OPG, which could be used to treat osteoporosis and the spreading of cancer to bones.

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