Despite being a center for cancer research, with several internationally renowned research universities and hospitals, Los Angeles remains a relative backwater when it comes to biomed companies.
“Cancer is such a core issue in biotechnology right now that it is astounding we don’t have more biotech companies doing cancer-related work in Los Angeles,” said Ahmed Enami, executive director of the Southern California Biomedical Council, a local trade group.
“You would think that with several local premier universities, L.A. would be a leading force in the biomed community. The fact that we’re not is indicative of the institutions’ attitude towards cultivating spin-off companies,” he said.
To be sure, there are a few biomed firms in the L.A. area engaged in cancer-related work.
Amgen Inc. in Thousand Oaks researches blood-cell development, a key issue in cancer treatments. Westlake Village-based Ambryx received a National Institutes of Health grant to conduct research on cell death. North American Scientific Inc., based in North Hollywood, produces iodine-125 seeds, a radioactive material used to treat prostate cancer. UroGenesys Inc. of Santa Monica is a biotech company searching for genes specific to prostate cancer.
But the list is relatively short, especially compared with the established biomed communities in San Diego and San Francisco.
Representatives of local universities acknowledge the dearth of companies doing cancer-related research here, saying their respective administrations have only recently focused on fostering spin-off companies to take advantage of the research coming out of their institutions.
“Prior to the last couple of years, there really weren’t a lot of start-ups coming out of UCLA,” said Emily Waldron, a technology transfer officer at UCLA’s Business Research Partnerships office. “We are only on the first wave of start-ups, but we definitely hope to see the number of biotech start-ups coming from here increase.”
A Cal Tech administrator said efforts have only recently begun to focus on transferring on-campus research to the private sector.
“We have three embryonic, very early-stage spin-offs coming out of Cal Tech,” said Larry Gilbert, director of technology transfer at Cal Tech. “The rate of spinning out more companies should accelerate from here. We are all aware of the shortage of biomed companies, specifically those working on cancer issues, in the area. But the incubation period for that type of research is quite lengthy.”
Gilbert did not want to elaborate on the new companies’ research, saying it is too soon.
The growth of L.A.’s biomed community has been hampered by the lack of an established presence of major industry players here, as exists in San Diego and the Bay Area. Those communities are thriving, and that success attracts more companies to those areas.
“To produce, keep and attract more biotech companies to L.A. County, we have to have a cluster identity,” said Cal Tech’s Gilbert. “We simply don’t have that reputation right now. That is what the ‘Pasadena Corridor,’ which hopefully will come to fruition this year, is trying to accomplish.”
But the proposed biotech corridor, which was envisioned as a place for nurturing new businesses, has been slow to move forward.
Meanwhile, Alfred Mann, chairman and chief executive of Sylmar-based MiniMed Inc., is giving $100 million each to USC and UCLA to set up institutes dedicated to bringing biotech innovations to the marketplace. He is also developing a biotech center on the northern campus of Cal State Northridge.
“The goal of these institutes is to help take scientific developments from a campus and onto the marketplace,” Mann said, adding that the deans of USC and UCLA have told him that these institutes will make L.A. one of the country’s leading biomed centers.
For local companies, not being situated within an established cluster can create headaches. Many of the resources these companies need to grow and prosper are in short supply. Specialized labor, niche lawyers, venture capitalists and customized office buildings are far more readily available in San Diego and Northern California than in Los Angeles.
“We have had some trouble finding qualified research associates and moved a couple of folks up from San Diego,” said Jeff Anderson, director of business development at UroGenesys. “And our lawyers are in the Bay Area, which is where the expertise is. None of these are insurmountable problems, but it would definitely be easier if we were in a known cluster and could just cross the street to get what we wanted.”
UroGenesys was founded by UCLA doctors, and consequently has stayed close to the campus.
Anderson added that even with the efforts by Mann and others, L.A. will never become a center for biomed or biotech companies.
“L.A. is the entertainment center of the world,” he said. “With San Diego providing a Mecca for biotech, it will be hard for L.A. to evolve.”
Paul Gropman, director of investor relations for North American Scientific, does not see location as a terribly important factor in his business.
“The company started here and evolved here; we find our employees here and train them,” he said. “We market and distribute our product on a national level, and our stock has skyrocketed. We’re content here.”
Dr. Robert Nagourney, Rational Therapeutic’s founder, actually moved from San Diego to Long Beach.
“San Diego is oversubscribed on doctors and undersubscribed on patients,” he said. “For my research, I needed to be in a large population base. It also helps to be near a major airport, since I have a lot of international patients and have human tissue samples flown in almost every day.”