Sacramento Bee: Opinion: Biotech industry needs to be nurtured

By Todd E. Gillenwater, op-ed special to The Sacramento Bee
Dec. 9, 2014

California has been associated with risk-taking, entrepreneurship and innovation since the Gold Rush. Today, California is still an innovation engine in such varied sectors as agriculture and the Internet. But only one homegrown industry can stake a claim as a leading contributor to our state’s economy and the health of people around the world: the life sciences sector.

Combining our world-class universities and research institutes, venture capital-backed startups and global biotechnology and medical device corporations, California leads the world.

In 2013, more than 2,600 life sciences companies employed 270,000 people, with average annual wages that topped $100,000, according to this year’s California Biomedical Industry Report. California firms and scientists received more venture capital and research funding than anyone else in the United States. Add in the estimated $101 billion in total revenues, $22.2 billion in exports, $27.4 billion in wages and $3.7 billion in state and local tax revenue, and you have an economic base that is envied by every other state and every nation in the world.

This didn’t just happen on its own. The sector’s establishment and growth have been facilitated in no small way by favorable policies at both the state and federal levels, including support for our higher education system and robust science research funding.

Education provides a highly trained workforce for California’s thriving biomedical sector. Our world-class universities and research institutions are the starting points for groundbreaking biomedical research. This innovative infrastructure permeates the state. This year, researchers and scientists at California research institutions are projected to receive 7,400 National Institutes of Health grants, totaling $3.3 billion, by far the most of any state in the nation. Many of the studies funded by these grants will lead to new insights into human biology and possibly the development of new therapies and diagnostics.

As they move into the private sector, these intellectual discoveries attract enormous investment. California companies are projected to receive more than $3.8 billion in venture capital funding in 2014, once again leading the way. These investments, as well as those from the NIH and other sources, have spurred even more innovation and helped the state recover from the devastating Great Recession.

Yet past performance does not guarantee future success. Can we expect this trend of 4 percent growth over the past five years to continue? It can, but only if the sector and its infrastructure are maintained, supported and strengthened.

Our elected officials in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., must work to preserve and protect this treasured industry and all that it stands for. Robust science funding, strong patent and intellectual property protections and predictable and efficient regulatory processes should be continuing priorities for the next Congress. It’s critical that the Legislature supports the University of California and California State University systems, science and math education at all levels and common-sense regulatory policy. And as the Affordable Care Act continues to roll out at the federal and state levels, it’s paramount that our leaders advance policies to protect patient access to both their doctors and life-saving new therapies.

We’re optimistic that when we publish data next year and beyond, they will show further progress. However, while California’s biomedical sector has done well, we face increasing competition from other states and nations, as well as ongoing policy challenges. We cannot forget the sound ideas that got us here. And we must also find new ways to foster the innovation economy and remain world leaders in the life sciences. That future will not get built on its own. The heavy lifting belongs to us.

Todd E. Gillenwater is executive vice president of advocacy and external relations at California Life Sciences Association (CLSA), a nonprofit public policy organization representing leading academic institutions and biotechnology, medical device, diagnostics and pharmaceutical firms.

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