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Bioscience initiatives are everywhere — except, paradoxically, in Berkeley, where researchers helped launch the industry but politicians view it with suspicion. 

March 7, 2002 | It's hardly an accident that California became the hub of biotechnology in the United States, nor is it a coincidence that one-third of the world's biotech companies are within 35 miles of a University of California research center, and six out of 10 biotechnology drugs are based on UC research.

The biotech industry was effectively launched 25 years ago by the joint discovery of DNA cloning techniques by scientists at UC San Francisco and Stanford University, led by Herbert Boyer and Stanley Cohen. That caught the eye of the fledgling venture capital industry, then developing in Palo Alto. The convergence of VC funding, a willing community of top bioscience researchers, and the risk-taking attitude emanating from the electronics and computer industries stimulated a flurry of startups seeking to commercialize biotechnology.

Surrounding cities took notice. South San Francisco enticed scientists to its near-empty warehouse district by offering cheap leases, easy approvals, and a prime location between Stanford, UC Berkeley and UCSF. Emeryville, another blighted town beside the Bay Bridge, followed suit.

California has also worked hard to reduce regulatory and red-tape barriers. When Chiron Corp., the biopharmaceuticals company, built its Emeryville facility in the mid-'90s, it needed permits from 17 government agencies. By contrast, says Chiron co-founder Edward Penhoet, when Chiron recently decided to build a new manufacturing plant in Vacaville, there was one counter at which the company could do everything. "It's the simple things," he says, "one-stop shopping, a friendly face behind the counter."

It hasn't been all roses for California. In 1980, Berkeley passed a law that required any company conducting biotech research to make its laboratory notebooks available for public viewing. Cetus Corp., which had set up shop in Berkeley, left to protect its intellectual property. Chiron considered Berkeley, but eventually chose Emeryville instead — then home to a steel mill and abandoned warehouses.

Today, Berkeley hosts one major player: Bayer Corp., which invested $100 million into a new facility there a few years ago. "Berkeley missed being the center of Silicon Valley and the center of biotechnology, in part because the city hadn't been friendly to business," Penhoet says. "Now, Berkeley would turn handsprings for a major biotech company to move there, but nobody will take the risk. Who's to say they won't flip-flop again once you get in there?"

For reprints and/or copyright permission, please contact Angela Parsons, 781.972.5467.