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While sunny San Diego is famous for its velvety beaches and pristine weather, the coastal ...
While sunny San Diego is famous for its velvety beaches and pristine weather, the coastal city is also home to a buzzing biotechnology market. With innovation embedded in its roots, how exactly did the southern Californian city become so famous for its start-up culture?
Since the turn of
the millennium, San Diego’s Life Sciences industry has grown five times as fast
as the local economy, generating $131 billion in economic value and supporting over
1.38 million Californian-based jobs in the process.
In fact, today, San
Diego, also distinctively nicknamed Biotech Beach, is the third largest and
fastest-growing biotech hub in the US, with over 71,000
direct employees and year-on-year
job growth of 18%.
The development within the sector boils down to a
hotbed of skilled Life Sciences talent, relatively affordable lab spaces, and
access to investors – assets that can’t be easily replicated elsewhere.
But how exactly did
San Diego become the go-to destination for biotechnology?
San Diego’s biotech
story began back in 1955-1965 when leading research institutions such as the Salk Institute, Scripps, and the University
of California San Diego (UCSD) were founded in close proximity to one
another. Built overlooking the mighty, majestic Pacific Ocean, the institutions
commenced their operations by recruiting renowned Life Scientists across the
As the academic
foundations were already in place, business leaders designated the Torrey Pines
neighbourhood to scientific research and development to create new industries
and build new companies with high-paying jobs.
first-rate resources, emerging opportunities, and the region’s Mediterranean
climate, crowds of researchers and students flooded the shores, hungry to
expand the boundaries of Life Sciences and enhance the capabilities of modern
But aside from its
popularity by those in the industry, in the business world, it was Ivor Royston
who really got people talking...
It was 1978, and
Royston – then a young assistant professor studying immunology at UCSD –
dropped four investors at the airport after showing them around his lab. As
they were chatting, he told them he believed his research into monoclonal
antibodies could be the future of disease diagnosis. He revealed that he and
his assistant, Howard
Birndorf, hoped to begin making the antibodies commercially for hepatitis
Not too long after,
the San Franciscan venture capitalists gave the pair $300,000 to begin work on
the antibodies, and subsequently, Hybritech and San
Diego’s multi-billion-dollar biotech industry was born.
By the early 80s,
the San Diego area was steeped with complementary firms – patent attorneys,
venture capitalists, and PR companies – who were steadfast in supporting
entrepreneurial start-ups heading toward medical breakthroughs.
In that same time
period, Hybritech went public and commercialised a series of diagnostic kits,
including those for anaemia, allergies, and different forms of cancer. By 1985,
the business had developed its legacy product:
the very first antibody for prostate cancer, which was market-approved just a
After going to
market, the PSA
test received recognition for being the most accurate way to monitor the
disease, which continues to be the second biggest cancer killer among men. The
test measures the blood for prostate-specific antigen, a protein that increases
in parallel with the disease.
The same year the
PSA test went to market, the infamous pharmaceutical giant, Eli Lilly, bought Hybritech for a staggering
$400 million, which in turn, produced a league of San Diego biotech
millionaires. And yes, it was, in fact, Hybritech’s success that ignited an
explosion of venture capitalist funding companies in the San Diego area.
It’s worth noting
here that many of Hybritech’s founders and early employees who thrived under
the company’s entrepreneurial spirit chose not to work for the much more
corporate Eli Lilly. Instead, those who left went on to create or nurture other
Life Sciences companies, including one of San Diego’s biggest biotech success stories,
Idec (now part of Biogen).
In fact, today, a
quarter of San Diego’s Life Sciences organisations have roots that can be
traced back to Hybritech, reports Biocom.
So, I think it’s safe to say there wouldn’t be such a successful biotech business
in San Diego without researchers like Royston, who himself went on to become a
venture capitalist to invest in local Life Sciences.
But back to the rich
history of San Diego...
Throughout the late 80s and early 90s, when The Cold
War was winding down, defence spending in the area had drastically decreased,
meaning San Diego-based aerospace companies were closing their doors. As a
result, the local economy collapsed, and California faced its gravest recession
in over 50 years, with unemployment rates spiralling to nearly 10%!
To secure more
business, more specifically biotech business, civic leaders agreed to relax
some of the city’s rigid regulations surrounding construction, permits, and
zoning. Because of the loosening of rules, along with the research from UCSD, the
Salk Institute, the Burnham Institute,
and Scripps, a tidal wave of biotech businesses emerged.
It was then, in
1991, that Biocom was formed to be the voice of the Life Sciences industry in
California and to rally against proposed water sanctions and promote the
industry’s economic growth. To avoid any cuts, and ultimately halt the work of
Life Sciences companies within San Diego, Biocom agreed to have all of its
members up their reclaimed water usage.
Diego’s biotech industry is thriving, with the average worker earning $113,602 –
that’s roughly 29% more than the average pay for all other jobs in the city.
For us at Meet, from
2021 to 2022, we’ve had an enormous 524% increase in placements in San Diego,
with our candidates securing a median wage of $141,250.
So, while San Diego
has a rich history that has planted its feet firmly in the sand of Life
Sciences, start-ups continue to emerge and grow, expanding economic value,
attracting skilled workers, and contributing to the social and cultural
vitality of the southern Californian city.
If you’re working within Life Sciences and looking for a new opportunity in Biotech Beach, make sure you reach out to us! Our expert consultants have the knowledge and network to secure your next exciting endeavour.