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Los Angeles: Famous for Big Screens, Beaches and Biotech

By Casey Hynes

Dec. 6, 2018
Scientist working in biotech field in LA examining a tube in a lab
LA has the talent, intellect and the infrastructure to become a true leader in the biotech industry. (Photo credit): Gettyimages.com/Hero Images

Why the biotech and life science industries are thriving in Southern California.

When most people think of Los Angeles, images of Hollywood glamour and A-list celebrities come to mind. Actors, musicians, up-and-coming starlets—these are the influencers who have defined the “City of Angels.”

But another facet of the Los Angeles area is emerging, and that is a budding reputation as a biotech hub. The groundwork has long been there, thanks to the area’s numerous high-profile universities and existing bioscience corridor. Now, it’s a matter of cultivating the already fertile ground to let LA become a leading center for biotech research and innovation.

“LA recently has been very actively trying to develop the life science industry here locally,” says Johnny Lee, managing director of venture lending and emerging technologies at East West Bank. “The local governments here, the city and the county in general, they want to build up [a biotech hub].”

A biotech hub a long time in the making

Three years ago, the former president of the University of Southern California asserted that Los Angeles County has what it takes to rival San Francisco and San Diego as a California biotech hub. This year, both the local government and biotech companies have taken steps toward fulfilling LA’s potential in this area.

Two biotech scientists walking outside
(Photo credit): Gettyimages.com/Peathegee Inc
“Everyone knows LA’s commercial success within sectors like media and tech, but now it’s time for our bioscience community to shine.”

-Mark Ridley-Thomas

"Los Angeles County has always been a bioscience powerhouse from a research perspective, but now we are flexing our entrepreneurial muscle,” says Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. "County investments in infrastructure and capital for science startups will accelerate our innovation ecosystem. Everyone knows LA's commercial success within sectors like media and tech, but now it's time for our bioscience community to shine.”

Jobs in California today in the life sciences offer an average salary of $119,000, and job growth in the industry, especially in LA, has seen a significant spike. As a result, venture capital growth in the industry has also been positive, with the amount pouring into California hitting $7.6 billion in the past year alone.

In September, Ridley-Thomas announced the launch of Bioscience Los Angeles County (BioLA), a public-private partnership to advance the area’s biotech ecosystem. BioLA is being set up as a non-profit 501(c)(3) that will provide marketing, coordination, and strategy support to the many stakeholders in the space, including biotech startups that have chosen to make Los Angeles County their home. Eventually, the organization may grow to facilitate relationships between startups and investors, as well as aid in cultivating the local talent pool.

Amgen, the biopharmaceutical company based out of Thousand Oaks, is a founding sponsor of BioLA, bringing significant brand recognition and expertise to the organization.

“Amgen was founded in 1980 and has grown into one of the largest independent biotechnology companies in the world. We are now part of a vibrant life sciences community in and around Los Angeles County that has all of the ingredients for sustained success, including world-class research institutions, experienced managerial talent, ambitious startups, incubator space and venture funding,” says David Piacquad, senior vice president of business development at Amgen. “Through our participation in BioLA, we look forward to further supporting the growth of this innovation ecosystem as we work in collaboration with the County of Los Angeles and other local entities.”

Cooperation between city and local government agencies and private companies will prove essential to Los Angeles’ growth as a biotech center. Both have much to contribute to bolstering local resources and making the area ever more attractive for biotech innovators.

“It definitely takes a public-private partnership to build up a whole ecosystem,” Lee says. “With government support, whether those are subsidies or incentives that attract private companies or publicly traded companies to the geographic area, you do see a lot of activities that are helping, particularly with the county of LA trying to promote this whole area. It’s already quite a large part of the economy here.”

Why LA could become a biotech leader

Los Angeles is already a leader when it comes to bioscience jobs in the state. As of 2017, it boasted more than 58,400 jobs in the field, making it second only to San Francisco in terms of employment opportunities. According to the Los Angeles Business Journal, the county is number one in the state for attracting funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

Los Angeles is also growing in stature among startup communities. In 2017, the Milken Institute reported that the University of California, Los Angeles, was among the top 225 universities when it came to creating startups. Perhaps that’s no surprise, considering that Los Angeles ranks third among startup hubs in the U.S., after San Francisco and New York. Thanks to its lower startup costs and cost of living, along with quality-of-life perks, entrepreneurs increasingly see the Southern California city as an optimal place to set up their businesses.

Downtown Los Angeles skyline
(Photo credit): Gettyimages.com/Carl Larson Photography
"With government support, whether those are subsidies or incentives that attract private companies or publicly traded companies to the geographic area, you do see a lot of activities that are helping, particularly with the county of LA trying to promote this whole area."

-Johnny Lee

There are a number of resources in the area to make it all the more attractive. The Pasadena Bio Collaborative Incubator affords startups access to resources and equipment, as well as skills training and education. Momentum Biosciences was created by faculty at University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) to “create a local home for entrepreneurial academics and their new ideas” and has provided support for at least 10 life and physical science companies.” Sofie Biosciences, a Los Angeles-based theranostics (a new field of medicine that is a combination of “diagnostics” and “therapeutics”) company, has taken advantage of UCLA’s impressive science and medical departments, and features many UCLA faculty on its board.

Investments in Los Angeles biotech interests are rising as well. The venture capital firm Westlake Village BioPartners launched a $320 million fund, its first, in September of this year. Los Angeles County has also issued a request for proposals for the creation of a bioscience venture capital fund that will support early-stage companies, and it will contribute $15 million in seed money.

Importantly, the county’s Board of Supervisors has partnered with California State University, Dominguez Hills, to create a workforce development initiative that will help local professionals develop skills needed for bioscience fields, enhancing the local talent in the biotech space.

As these and other initiatives mature, LA’s biotech stars will continue to rise. The area has the talent, intellect and the infrastructure to nurture a robust community of innovators and become a true leader in the industry.

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