June 22--Economic development and business leaders in four North Bay counties have launched a new regional initiative aimed at attracting pharmaceutical and other bioscience companies to the area.
The initiative, known as the North Bay Life Science Alliance, is an effort to brand and market the area as an ideal place for locating life-science companies. The initiative stems from the growing success of the bioscience industry in Marin County, which is home to the Buck Institute for Research on Aging and BioMarin Pharmaceutical, which develops therapies for rare genetic diseases.
Sonoma County economic development officials participating in the alliance say they hope to lure bioscience companies by leveraging the area's existing medical device manufacturing cluster, the county's enviable quality of life and higher education resources.
"There's a foundation of an industry and a cluster of the life science already here, so we don't have to start from scratch," said Chris Stewart, chairman and CEO of the North Bay Life Science Alliance. The group includes life-science professionals and economic development officials in Marin, Napa, Sonoma and Solano counties.
This week, the group will attend the BIO International Conference in San Diego, the world's largest biotechnology gathering. Stewart said the alliance will target companies that are being "pushed out" of the Bay Area by tech giants like Google and Apple, which are driving up the cost of doing business there.
Stewart, who is also Novato's economic development manager, said participants in the alliance have been in talks for about a year. He currently works as a volunteer in the alliance.
The City of Novato provided an initial investment of $292,000 for the project last year, recognizing the need to launch a regional effort that included other North Bay jurisdictions. The initiative calls for a three-year $1.5 million marketing campaign that will require other cities and counties to contribute sums similar to what Novato donated, he said.
According to a 2014 report prepared by the Marin Economic Forum for the city of Novato, Marin County has more than 200 life-science companies that employ more than 1,700 people, mainly in biopharmaceuticals, instruments and diagnostics and research institutions.
But Marin County can only accommodate "a limited amount of life-science research companies and jobs since we have very limited land on which to build new research facilities," Stewart wrote in a 2014 staff report to the Novato City Council
In order to attract more bioscience companies to the region, Novato and Marin County officials determined that it would be necessary to partner with Sonoma, Napa and Solano counties to offer a complete "supply chain of services from research to clinical trials, manufacturing, packaging, warehousing and distribution facilities."
Sonoma County BEST, a county-wide initiative aimed at promoting local business retention and expansion, is part of the alliance. Its executive director, Carolyn Stark, said the regional approach is a better way to attract life-science businesses.
"Anytime you work together to attract companies, you're going to be more successful than if you are working on your own," Stark said.
Stark said Sonoma County offers a number of amenities that could help bioscience companies thrive, including academic resources at Sonoma State University and Santa Rosa Junior College. She said the county is also home to a successful cluster of medical device manufacturers that could attract life-science companies looking for an established manufacturing base.
And Sonoma County has space, she said.
"We have land assets. We have room to grow," Stark said, adding that there are many facilities in Sonoma County that could be considered for office expansion.
"The vacancy rate is fairly high and we're looking to fill those offices," she said.
Cynthia Murray, president and CEO of the North Bay Leadership Council, another alliance partner, said one of Sonoma County's biggest assets is its quality of life.
"The Sonoma County lifestyle is prized throughout the world," she said.
Murray said Sonoma County's lower cost of living relative to other parts of the Bay Area, could also attract bioscience companies.
"It's easier to attract people to Sonoma County because the cost of living isn't as high as it is in Marin," she said.
Robert Eyler, vice chairman of the alliance and director of the Center for Regional Economic Analysis at Sonoma State University, said Sonoma County also benefits from having an airport that could connect it other life-science hubs such as San Diego.
Sonoma County is home to 131 life-science firms, with most of those being in the medical device sector, according to the Marin Economic Forum study.
Between 2001 and 2013, life-science jobs in Sonoma County tumbled from 11,025 to 4,047, which the study attributed to downsizing by Medtronic and other life-science companies during the recession. In contrast, Marin County saw its life-science increase from 727 to 1,703 during the same period, according to the study.
An alliance report that will be presented at the conference this week lays out the benefits of growing the life-science sector in the North Bay.
The report says that 300 new life-science jobs translate into 503 jobs across all industries. That, in turn, would produce $142 million in new business and $4 million in state and local revenue.
Vipul Sheth, vice president of global quality for Medtronic, Inc., said expanding the life-science sector in Sonoma County would likely result in the growth of ancillary businesses.
That would mean companies like Medtronic would not have to go to the South Bay for such things as microbiology-related specialty testing and sterilization services. It would also be easier to attract employees when they see that Medtronic is not the only "big company in the area," he said.
"People end up picking the South Bay or other areas even though ideally they would love to live in Sonoma County," Sheth said.
(You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 521-5213 or email@example.com.)
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