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Opinion: UC helps drive California biotech; don’t disinvest

Work has led to advances in cancer treatment, disease prevention, vaccines, precision medicine and prosthetics

By WENDYE ROBBINS | Op-Ed in The Mercury News
June 5, 2018

University of California research innovations have helped Bay Area biotech companies usher in breakthroughs in cancer immunotherapy, disease prevention, vaccines, precision medicine and prosthetics while generating high-paying jobs and tax revenues for the Golden State.

And so it’s little wonder that Bay Area biotech leaders – especially those of us who graduated from UC campuses – are closely watching how Gov. Jerry Brown funds California’s top-ranking research university system in the 2018-19 state budget. A lot is at stake.

While we applaud the allocation for UC’s deferred maintenance, the governor’s proposed 3 percent increase falls significantly below what is needed to keep the University of California competitive and, in turn, California’s biotech industry on the cutting edge.

Across UC campuses from Berkeley to San Francisco and from San Diego to Davis, five new inventions, on average, are developed each day. Moreover, research by UC graduate students produce a new startup every two weeks.  At UC Berkeley, our alma mater, hundreds of life sciences majors take up research positions in our firms on the outskirts of the campus.

That’s why companies like ours keep an eagle eye on UC-generated discoveries, often commercializing or acquiring them to help translate ground-breaking science into the treatments and medications that will improve and extend our lives. There are currently more than 1,200 medicines developed by California biotech companies in the approval pipeline, for diseases that affect many California families, ranging from cancer to Alzheimer’s to diabetes.

As for the economic impact, biotech is part of the larger life sciences sector, and at last count there were more than 3,000 life sciences companies in California, supplying nearly 300,000 direct jobs, paying an average of $113,000, and generating $169 billion in total revenue in 2016. Biotech is a hot sector for venture capital investment, attracting $2.3 billion in 2017.

It’s no secret that UC has suffered from decades of disinvestment by the state. Student support services are diminishing, infrastructure is groaning, class sizes are increasing, while students and their families are left with a growing financial burden. Meanwhile, the UC system is increasingly at a disadvantage vis-à-vis private universities with respect to hiring and retaining the faculty needed to teach classes, mentor students and direct their research, and compete for more than $3 billion in federal research dollars.

For the sake of future generations of UC students and the health of California’s economy, it is critical that Gov. Brown and state legislators support full funding for UC’s 2018 budget request. A 4 percent increase versus the governor’s proposed 3 percent would signal a step towards returning to the level of state support needed to sustain UC’s excellence and affordability.

As CEOs of companies on the frontline of science and medicine, we need the state to continue partnering with the University of California to produce the expert labor force that drives the biotechnology industry in our state.

We urge those who care about the state’s economic growth, and health and social mobility, to call on the governor and legislators to safeguard the University of California’s critical role in the state’s life sciences business ecosystem.

Wendye Robbins is president & CEO of Blade Therapeutics in South San Francisco. She co-wrote this with fellow UC Berkeley graduates Stephen Cary, president and CEO of Omniox; Nathaniel David, co-founder and president of Unity Biotechnology; Stephen Isaacs, chairman, president and CEO of Aduro Biotech; David Kirn, CEO, co-founder and chairman of 4D Molecular Therapeutics; Gail Maderis, president and CEO of Antiva Biosciences; Adam Mendelsohn, president of Nano Precision Medical; and Terry Rosen, CEO of Arcus Biosciences.

Read at The Mercury News.