Twenty years ago, San Francisco’s Mission Bay was an industrial zone filled with shipyards and railroad tracks. It was sluggish by day and deserted by night. Today, it is a vibrant health and biotech hub that continues to evolve. A note to the media: Don’t box us in.
When my company, Bayer, relocated its California research and innovation teams to Mission Bay in 2010, the decision was based on the thriving ecosystem in place. A big draw was new facilities built and occupied by the University of California, San Francisco. With the draw of its talent pool at our doorstep, and the energy of biotech activities planned for the surrounding area, it was a no-brainer to invest in this innovation hub. However, as some San Francisco-based reporters have pointed out, Mission Bay has attracted a wider group of companies, notably in technology, that may be squeezing out some biotech companies.
While the area hasn’t quite captured the magnitude of biotech and pharma players as has Kendall Square in Cambridge, those of us working in Mission Bay view the life sciences industry here as a mainstay, where growth will continue in a very Left Coast kind of way.
UCSF continues to be a steadfast anchor, as evidenced by its many expansions, including the Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center in 2009, the Cardiovascular Care and Prevention Center in 2010, and the Bakar Precision Cancer Medicine Building this year. What wasn’t expected at the beginning was that biomedical companies wouldn’t remain confined to the Mission Bay corridor, but instead began colonizing a greater swath of San Francisco and South San Francisco.
San Francisco has 261 biomedical companies, 40% of which have fewer than 20 employees and 72% with fewer than 50 employees, according to Gregory Theyel, program director of the Biomedical Manufacturing Network. A similar scene has developed in South San Francisco — situated south of San Francisco proper with its own city boundaries — hosting 203 companies, just under half of which have fewer than 20 employees. To the east across the bay, the Berkeley-Emeryville communities host more than 140 life science companies.
Larger pharma companies are also developing footprints in the region, from the Novartis Biome digital incubator in San Francisco’s financial district to Bayer’s CoLaborator in Mission Bay. The CoLaborator grew from two companies in its infancy in 2012 to 17 at its peak; 11 companies currently operate out of the space.
According to STAT’s Rebecca Robbins, Mission Bay hasn’t “fulfilled its promise as West Coast Kendall Square.” And as Ron Leuty, a reporter for the San Francisco Business Times mused on Twitter:
When UCSF built its Mission Bay campus, leaders saw it at the center of a biotech enclave. With much of the neighborhood built out, the Golden State Warriors, Dropbox and Uber (leasing space at $84.48 per square foot) moving in, are biotech's Mission Bay days numbered?
— Ron Leuty (@rleuty_biotech) April 12, 2019
Both are off the mark. Although the sector may have grown up differently than expected, it has evolved in a way that is stronger and more ready to address the challenges of the industry in developing therapies that meet patients’ needs.
Where the birthplace of biotech in South San Francisco meets the continuing innovation of Silicon Valley, it’s no surprise that this collision of industries is promising to set off new ways to bring therapies to patients. Approximately 1 in 6 companies in San Francisco are digital health in nature.
Mission Bay may not look like the business plan that was drawn up 20 years ago, but here’s what it does look like: access to incredible talent at the intersection of health care and technology with connections to an extended ecosphere in the greater Bay Area. You might say that, like any good startup, the San Francisco biopharma ecosystem learned how to pivot to adjust to the times.
Chis Haskell is vice president and head of the open innovation center, North America West, for Bayer.