Hoping to accelerate the growth of the region's sluggish biomedical technology industry, USC and Los Angeles County are exploring the joint development of a biomedical industrial park in the Boyle Heights area.

The effort is being led on behalf of USC by billionaire Eli Broad and on behalf of the county by Supervisor Gloria Molina. It would be situated on land near County-USC Medical Center and the USC Health Sciences Campus, according to those familiar with the project.

But even though it is in its nascent stages, the project is already embroiled in a political controversy with what some feel is a competing proposal to turn Pasadena into a regional biotech corridor.

Sen. Richard Polanco, D-Los Angeles, who represents Boyle Heights, just last month gutted an unrelated bill and inserted new language that would throw the state's support behind the County-USC project. He is also seeking $200,000 for a state feasibility study.

However, a $250,000 state feasibility conducted last year at the behest of Sen. Jack Scott, D-Pasadena, already found that Pasadena would be the prime location for a proposed Cal State biotech center, given its proximity and ties to Caltech a leading generator of biotech spinoffs as well as to the Huntington Institute and other facilities.

"The question I raise is, why should the state spend money on two sites only 10 miles apart?" said Scott. "The (Pasadena) study is already completed. It was very thorough and objective and reached the conclusion that Pasadena would be an ideal location for a biotech corridor."

The proposed $20 million Pasadena center would include a biotechnology workforce training center, research laboratories, process manufacturing and a biotechnology business incubator. The center would also emphasize bioinformatics, a rapidly expanding specialization combining biology and computer science.

Room for both?

Supporters of the USC proposal say that they do not necessarily see why the two centers could not co-exist, given the size of the region and potential future growth of the biomedical technology industry.

"I see it as compatible. We have three major academic research centers in Los Angeles (USC, UCLA and Caltech). There is a lot of innovation coming out of those labs," said Jane Pisano, USC's senior vice president of external relations. "(But) we in L.A. have not been that successful as San Diego or the Bay Area in capturing innovation and translating it into jobs. Why should we export jobs from L.A. County that are based on technology that is created here?"

USC has already completed its own feasibility study for the Boyle Heights park, but officials have decided not to release the results of that study until a county feasibility study is completed, which is expected in a few weeks.

However, Pisano did say that the USC study found that up to 110 acres of underutilized county and private land in Boyle Heights could be assembled for a biomedical park, and that the envisioned park could generate up to 8,500 high-wage jobs.

Drawing on its proximity to the county hospital, the private USC University Hospital and other USC medical facilities in the area, the proposed biomed park is intended to serve not only startups but more-established biotech concerns as well.

"Almost always, successful biotech parks are located next to academic medical centers," Pisano said.

The proposed center would not incorporate an existing biomedical device center USC opened last year on its main campus after receiving a $100 million gift from entrepreneur Alfred E. Mann, she said.

The Board of Supervisors voted in November to conduct its own feasibility study of the Boyle Heights proposal at the request of Molina, who represents the area.

Miguel Santana, the supervisor's assistant chief deputy, said that Molina strongly supports the idea of a Boyle Heights biomedical park and is eagerly awaiting the results of the feasibility study, being conducted by Ernst & Young.

"It's the supervisor's vision that it would be an effective use of land for the county to have a biotech park, from an economic standpoint in providing jobs and tax revenue," Santana said. "It's an exciting concept, but one that is in a very preliminary, exploratory phase."

Idea's origination

The idea for the Boyle Heights park originated out of discussions held by the Board of Overseers of the Keck School of Medicine, USC's growing medical school, which was given a big boost with a $110 million gift from the W.M. Keck Foundation in 1999.

Broad, a member of the Keck board, is chairing a committee overseeing the project. The committee includes two other board members: developer Ed Roski Jr. and David Lee, a wealthy L.A. venture capitalist.

"It's really in the very rough, early stages," said Broad, in an interview early last week. "The scope has not yet been fully worked out."

The two projects face upcoming legislative tests. The Senate's Education Committee is expected to consider Polanco's bill, SB 1162, later this week after delaying consideration last week. A Scott bill, SB 327, that would provide $200,000 in funding for the Pasadena center, is still making its way through the Legislature.

Meanwhile, Scott said that supporters of the proposed Pasadena center are close to identifying a specific site out of three possibilities. He also questioned the ability of the supporters of the USC project to put enough land together, noting that Polanco told the Education Committee that some of the potential land includes a county juvenile hall.

"Locating a place for a juvenile hall is not real easy," said Scott, who sits on the Education Committee.

Polanco could not be reached for comment at press time.

Whatever the outcome of the projects, the idea behind both is to help jumpstart the region's biomedical industry, which is seen as lagging behind not only the Bay Area but also San Diego.

Thousand Oaks is home to the nation's largest biotech firm, Amgen Inc., and Northridge is the headquarters of MiniMed Inc., the leading maker of insulin pumps, but neither has spurred the growth of a cohesive biotechnology corridor or strong regional industry.

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