California Dreaming

May 01, 2008

One Saturday morning when Catherine Mackey first moved to San Diego, she and some friends took a lesson in surfing—the city's signature pastime. The friends thought it was all right, but Mackey was hooked.

She's still there today, years later, stopping on her way to work to plunge into the (wildly misnamed) Pacific, paddling out through the foggy dawn, and riding the rolling breakers back to shore accompanied by seals and dolphins.

Riding a wave. At sea and in a fog. Surrounded by exotic life forms. In constant danger of wiping out.

Put that way, Mackey's leisure pursuit sounds a lot like her day job—and the jobs of 40,000 or so others who work just a few square miles from her office. They're all on the leading edge of biotechnology—Mackey as senior vice president of Pfizer Global Research & Development and head of the Pfizer La Jolla Laboratories, her neighbors as the researchers and entrepreneurs who make up the San Diego County biotech cluster, one of the largest and most productive assemblages of life science companies in the world.

Facts At a Glance
The Boston metropolitan area may have bigger name universities and more funding from the National Institutes of Health. San Francisco may generate more patents and boast the biggest total life sciences market cap. But San Diego is home to more biotech companies than its better known competitors combined—400 compared with 152 in San Francisco and 141 in Boston. It has drawn more than $1.5 billion in Big Pharma research commitments since 2002, and was named by the Milken Foundation as the top biotech hotspot in 2004. The same year, Forbes magazine named San Diego the best place in America to start a new company.

If the presence of Big Pharma is the signal that a biotech cluster has reached critical mass, then San Diego may be in for interesting times. Johnson & Johnson, Eli Lilly, Novartis, and Schering-Plough have all set up shop in the cluster. Novartis has spent $850 million for two research institutes, and moved its $100 million venture fund to San Diego as well.

And then there's Pfizer. The pharma giant has been a resident since 2000, when it acquired Warner Lambert, which in turn had purchased Agouron, a local biotech that evolved into Pfizer's HIV business. Over the past five years, Pfizer has poured half a billion dollars into developing a 33.5-acre campus of eight buildings, more than a million square feet of research space housing a thousand employees. Since January 2007, Pfizer La Jolla, as the new facility is known, has been the center for all Pfizer's oncology research.

"It's a great place to recruit people to, and there's quite a bit of churning in the community," says Mackey. "So you'll have someone who got their PhD at UCSD, and then they'll go to Scripps and get a post-doc, and then they'll come here and work for a few years. Then they might go somewhere else and start a company and then come back. This is a tremendous environment for R&D."

Or, as they say in San Diego, surf's up.

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