Growth of the Los Angeles/ Orange County Biotech Ecosystem
December 5, 2023
By Arati Naveen, Patrick Nguyen, Richard Zhuang, William Fried , Yasaman Moradi
Los Angeles, celebrated for its Hollywood allure and pristine beaches, is swiftly gaining traction as a formidable player in the biotechnology industry. Since the initiation of Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News' (GEN) annual top 10 U.S Biopharma Clusters list in 2014, the Los Angeles/Orange County (LA/OC) region has been a consistent contender. Remarkably, this region had the greatest upward movement of any biopharma cluster within the ranking, progressing from the 9th to the 5th spot between 2014-2023.,  In this paper, we delve into the essential components of a thriving biotech hub, examining LA/OC’s strategies, strengths, and challenges. Drawing insights from industry reports and dialogues with leading figures in Los Angeles and California at large, we've identified five critical elements for a prosperous biotech ecosystem: robust academic institutions, capital attraction, skilled talent, favorable regulations, and ample space. These components collectively shape a thriving ecosystem.
The LA/OC region's academic prowess has always been strong point. Dave Whelan, CEO of BioscienceLA, points out that the region boasts over 100 higher education institutions that cultivate local talent. This is further strengthened by elite institutions such as USC, UCLA, UCI, and Caltech, which consistently drive innovation. Corroborating this, a CBRE Research report ranks the LA/OC region second nationally for awarding Biological and Biomedical Science degrees. Furthermore, the region's schools have secured its position as the seventh-largest recipient of NIH funding, as per the latest GEN report.
While NIH funding indicates the volume of foundational research in the area, for a thriving biotech ecosystem, commercialization of this research is imperative. Sibylle Hauser from California Life Sciences underscores the symbiotic relationship between academia and the biotech industry. Although groups like California Life Sciences and Tech Coast Angels bolster biotech startups, academia's role in bridging research and business is pivotal. Caltech, for instance, equips researchers with tools to transition their academic pursuits into viable biotech ventures. Dr. Jay Chiang, life science entrepreneur in residence at Caltech, stresses the importance of having a robust support framework encompassing technology transfer aid to seed capital. Annually, he and his physical science counterpart supports 8 to 12 total startups from Caltech. Institutions such as USC's MESH Academy, Cal State LA's LA BioSpace, and UCLA's Magnify at CNSI Incubator offer analogous support.
Standalone incubators like Pasadena Bio Collaborative Incubator (PBC) enrich LA's biotech scene by providing startups with essential facilities. Notably, PBC, inaugurated in 2004, was a biotech trailblazer in LA. Amid a burgeoning academic innovation scene, newer biotech incubators have sprung up, including University Lab Partners and Lundquist Institute in 2019 and LA BioSpace in 2021. With 21 such incubators, they play an instrumental role in converting academic breakthroughs into tangible biotech applications.
Still, obstacles remain. Dr. Molly Schmid, a professor at USC and a Tech Coast Angels board member, notes that many university-originated startups, while technologically advanced, may be unversed in areas such as intellectual property and FDA regulations. Dr. Chiang agrees, stating that researchers often require business mentorship, which their academic training doesn’t encompass. He also mentions that, at times, universities compartmentalize their tech transfer offices, incubators, and business consulting, making it harder for startup founders to access the right resources at the right time. While the necessary components exist within academic institutes, there’s a clear need for a more streamlined and comprehensive approach in the future.
Talent and Workforce
The large number of academic institutions also plays into growing the strength of the life science workforce here in the LA/OC region. According to the 2023 Biocom CA economic report the combined LA/OC region employs a staggering 160,800 life science professionals. This number is greater than the 158,449 professionals in Bay Area and the 77,770 professionals in San Diego also listed within the report. In fact, the consistency of LA's prowess in this field is underlined by its constant regular feature in the top three ranking of the U.S biopharma clusters in the jobs category by Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News since 2016. Dan Gober from Biocom California highlights that most life science jobs don’t require a Ph.D and typically pay more than their equivalent position in other fields. Within the same Biocom CA report only 12% of Industry job postings in California require a Ph.D or professional degree while 70% of job postings require a bachelor’s degree or lower.
When asked about important factors for a thriving biotech ecosystem, Dr. Mira Chaurushiya, a managing director from Westlake Village BioPartners, said that talent can be split into both innovative talent from academia and execution talent that comes from industry. While Los Angeles boasts abundant innovative talent, it lags in industry experience. As larger biotech companies release seasoned professionals, Dr. Chaurushiya notes these individuals play a pivotal role in establishing new startups, acting as a nucleating wind that enriches the ecosystem. Dave Whelan and Larry Holt, consultant at The Bingham Group, also point out LA's shortage of companies to support this experienced talent. Dave Whelan continues by stating the shortage of companies is caused by a lack of experienced leaders to help support new growing companies, supporting Dr. Chaurushiya’s thoughts. This results in a chicken and egg problem for the LA/OC region where the lack of companies prevents the accumulation of experienced talent which in turn prevents the growth of new companies.
Despite Los Angeles' robust educational institutions producing ample life science graduates, the region struggles to attract and retain seasoned professionals vital for nurturing its biotech ecosystem. A 2014 LA County-commissioned report by Battelle identified a “leaky bucket phenomenon” where biotech startups, initially founded in LA, relocate to more mature markets to commercialize. Factors like high living costs and lower demand deter top-tier talent. This trend reflects in wage disparities between Los Angeles and other biotech ecosystems: average salaries in LA's life science sector and Orange County stand at $93,333 and $108,000 respectively, trailing behind San Diego's $144,000 and Bay Area's $150,222.
Programs like the LA BioStart and BioFutures are bridging this gap. The 2021-launched BioFutures, by BioscienceLA, is a paid internship linking students from diverse backgrounds to LA's life science firms. Over 100 interns have benefited, with eight securing permanent roles. LA BioStart, stemming from Cal State LA, is another program that trains budding bioscience entrepreneurs. Dr. Howard Xu, director for incubator development and programming at LA BioSpace, highlights that the program has fostered 130 trainees across six total cohorts, and many startups birthed from this initiative continue to thrive today. As LA bolsters its homegrown talent, it will be poised to reverse historical patterns, drawing experienced talent to the ecosystem.
Los Angeles, situated in California, has advanced in the biotechnology industry due to California's supportive programs. These programs, such as the California Competes Tax Credit, the California Research and Development Tax Credit, and the Employee Training Panel (ETP), have significantly boosted the industry. Further propelling this momentum, Proposition 71 in 2004 allocated a whopping $3 billion for the establishment of the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM). Governed by a board of experts, CIRM's impact has been far-reaching, resulting in job growth, enhanced research collaborations, and clinical trials. By 2020, CIRM secured an additional $5.5 billion in funding.
Diving deeper, the LA/OC region stands out due to its distinct bio clusters. Each cluster is unique, catering to specific requirements within the broader Los Angeles biotech community. However, this diversity also brings challenges. The vast geography and multiple cities within LA County can make coordination and navigation complex due to the varying local regulations.
Nevertheless, the LA County biotech cluster benefits from the presence of renowned research institutions like Caltech, USC, UCLA, and Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. These institutions are a magnet for top talent, making the region a hotspot for technological transfer and commercialization. Spanning diverse sectors, LA County's biotech scene is vibrant. A 2014 Battelle report pinpointed the shortage of bioscience real estate. Addressing this, LA County began updating its zoning policies, promoting a harmonious coexistence between research facilities and other establishments in accordance to a regional planning report published in 2019. Moreover, local authorities are actively engaging with biotech firms, streamlining procedures. Although the multi-stakeholder government structure can lead to delays, allocations from the government to support initiatives like the Lundquist Institute and the LA BioSpace incubators, along with BioscienceLA, are noteworthy., , In July 2022, the LA County Board of Supervisors strengthened its commitment to bioscience with the unanimous approval of a motion by Supervisor & Board Chair Holly J. Mitchell committed to “Expanding the Life Sciences Industry While Creating Equitable, High-Road Career Opportunities for our Local Communities.” This motion is the result of planning and partnership from organizations as diverse as BioscienceLA, Biocom California, the County’s new Department of Economic Opportunity, and LAEDC. The motion includes several initiatives that have been under discussion for some time including the Life Sciences Cradle to Career employment pipeline, financial incentives for start-ups, a foundation for tenant improvement funds, zoning and entitlements improvements, continued planning on the biotech park adjacent to the Lundquist Institute, and a Life Sciences Ombudsperson to facilitate the motion.
The Thousand Oaks bio cluster, boasting giants like Amgen and up-and-comers like Capsida, is a seasoned player. Thousand Oaks City Manager Andrew Powers emphasizes the city's agility and close ties with businesses, ensuring that life science companies feel welcomed and their needs, including timely permitting, are met. The cluster also enjoys California's lowest sales tax and offers abundant space for labs and offices, with the city working to convert old buildings to cater to biotech needs giving it a significant edge over other bio clusters. While it has an established biotech framework, efforts are underway to enhance other sectors like housing and entertainment. Yet, its robust infrastructure and ecosystem keep it appealing.
Pasadena stands out as an ideal place for budding biotech startups, with institutions like Caltech and Pasadena City College forming its backbone. The city has seen successes with homegrown companies like Xencor and Protomer, highlighting its conducive environment for startups. Local authorities are further supporting growth with rebates and incentives. David Klug, Economic Development Officer of Pasadena, stated that collaborative efforts, like the Pasadena Foothills Investment Board's partnership with Pasadena City College, are expanding the specialized workforce. Furthermore, the local government is actively working on overcoming challenges such as limited space and the high costs involved in conversion of offices into lab spaces by changing zoning policies and offering incentives like construction tax rebates for hiring local contractors and water and power rebates for designated research and development spaces. These steps cement Pasadena’s progress towards becoming the “bio-campus” that the region is hoping to establish itself as.
To grow a biotech ecosystem, the availability of lab space is a critical factor. The main issue with lab space is that it does not come cheap. Mauricio Nuñez, Senior Vice President at Deodate notes that the primary hurdle with acquiring lab space is its prohibitive cost. Specifically, life science lab spaces are among the priciest in the real estate market, with internal buildouts often exceeding $1000 per square foot—sometimes even surpassing the cost of the building itself.
The LA/OC region has historically faced challenges concerning lab space availability. Data from a 2018 JLL research report shows that Los Angeles and OC together had only 7.9 million square feet (msf) of laboratory space. For context, San Diego had 18.0 msf and the Bay Area boasted 26.0 msf, as mentioned in the same report. This deficit can hinder the expansion of the biotech ecosystem, compelling growing startups to relocate to areas with more accessible lab spaces. Presently, lab space in Los Angeles currently sits at between 8.4 to 10.8 million square feet, based on data from industry reports.,  Furthermore, insights from Alexandra Sesi, a life sciences real estate advisor at JLL, suggest the presence of 12.3 million square feet lab space in Los Angeles. When compared to California's other biotech strongholds—San Diego's 22.6-24.2 million square feet and the Bay Area's 36.3-45.0 million square feet—Los Angeles pales in comparison.,  The most recent 2023 GEN report even ranks LA/OC 8th in terms of lab space among the top 10 US biopharma clusters.
Interestingly, while many biotech hubs are seeing diminished lab space demand and rising vacancies due to a decline in biotech investment, Los Angeles is bucking this trend. The city showcases lower vacancy rates compared to its counterparts, underscoring the pressing need for more lab spaces. Alexandra Sesi and a Cushman and Wakefield report peg the vacancy rates in Los Angeles at either 3% and 3.2% respectively. In contrast, San Diego's vacancy stands at 8.2%, and the Bay Area's at 11.8%. Furthermore, Los Angeles lags in terms of lab space construction, with a mere 0.420 msf underway, as opposed to San Diego's 4.77 msf and the Bay Area's 7.62 msf. Alexandra Sesi points out that Los Angeles's current lab space demand is approximately 1.1 msf, a demand that ongoing construction projects are ill-equipped to meet meet specially in the graduator space realm. As mentioned by Alexandra Sesi, “Any additional construction in Los Angeles poses new issues as it is hard to determine the best location for a new project, since the market is spread-out and bifurcated. All life science companies cannot localize in Thousand Oaks and with academic institutions so spread out, there is no centralized location”.
Several factors contribute to this disparity in Los Angeles. Rodrigo Gonzalez, CEO and Managing partner at Deodate, suggests that these challenges are manyfold. Foremost among them is the steep cost associated with real estate, making it difficult to develop new lab spaces. Additionally, LA's vast market size engenders competition across various industries, resulting in a lack of land earmarked for life sciences. The city's ongoing housing crisis further aggravates this problem by making suitable land acquisition for biotech ventures even more challenging. The fierce land competition in LA is steadily pushing biotech firms to the peripheries. Alexandra highlights that inadequate infrastructure, especially a lack of convertible buildings, compounds the issue. A combination of high-interest rates, exorbitant land prices, a limited pool of suitable buildings, and lengthy licensing procedures makes it increasingly challenging for biotech firms and life science real estate to thrive in LA.
The primary driver in propelling a life science ecosystem forward is capital accessibility. Given that biotechnology demands substantial funding—new treatments usually require over a billion dollars to transition from concept to market—it's no surprise that the lack of capital became a recurring topic in our discussions. In 2018, data from PitchBook showed that Los Angeles companies secured approximately $1.26 billion in venture capital (VC) funding. This is behind San Diego's $2.02 billion and substantially less than the Bay Area's $7.85 billion. In 2021 amidst the pandemic the spotlight on mRNA vaccines enhanced investor interest in biotech. San Diego's VC funding surged to $6.25 billion, three times its pre-pandemic value. Likewise, Los Angeles saw a 2.75-fold increase, reaching $3.47 billion. The Bay Area, although with a moderate rise, reached $9.15 billion in 2021 and peaked at $11.13 billion in 2022.
Post-pandemic dynamics shifted the scene once more. In 2023, San Diego's funding regressed to $2.19 billion, mirroring its 2018 figure. The Bay Area saw a substantial decline to $4.86 billion, and Los Angeles secured $1.96 billion—less than its 2021 peak but above its 2018 figure.
Interestingly, at the outset of 2023, Los Angeles County ranked fifth nationally in total invested capital, amassing $1.817 billion. This indicates a diverse investment landscape. By channeling more funds towards biotech, Los Angeles has the potential to resolve its capital constraints. There's a silver lining, as recent events, like Westlake Village BioPartners announcing a $450 million fund, underscore the city's growing influence in biotech.
Angel investments also play a pivotal role, especially for budding life science firms. Tech Coast Angels (TCA), one of America's leading angel investor networks has invested over $10 million annually for twelve straight years. Of the five chapters in their network, their Los Angeles chapter is by far their largest. In 2022, the life sciences domain, encompassing medical devices, diagnostics, pharmaceuticals, and digital health, captured the lion's share (41%) of TCA's investments. While this investment might appear modest compared to venture capital funding, angel investors play an essential role in providing initial seed funding to life science entrepreneurs, enabling them to transform their academic concepts into tangible ventures.
Dr. Chaurushiya emphasizes Los Angeles's unique appeal to biotech venture capitalists, pointing to a vibrant, less crowded ecosystem. The city's diverse landscape presents an expansive canvas for investors, fostering innovation and growth. Dr. Llewellyn Cox, general partner at MarsBio, underlines Los Angeles's multifaceted nature, highlighting its capacity to sustain various industries from trade to chemical manufacturing. However, this versatility presents a challenge. Dr. Cox notes that biotech, being one among many industries in the region, needs a compelling story to stand out amidst the bustling cityscape.
The LA/OC region is emerging as a significant contender in the life sciences arena. With its robust foundation of academic institutions and a vast life science workforce, it has inherent strengths. However, certain challenges persist. The unique geography of Los Angeles scatters the biotech clusters, hindering the establishment of a unified identity for the region. Dave Whelan underscores this dilemma by posing the unfair question, "Where is Los Angeles' equivalent of Kendall Square?" answering that this lack of a central hub is not necessarily a weakness in Los Angeles, with the range of sub-clusters creating the largest and most diverse life sciences region in the country. This fragmented identity complicates efforts to secure external investments and draw talent from established biotech hubs. Furthermore, the shortage of lab spaces can deter local innovations, often pushing biotech startups to seek opportunities outside the region. While the LA/OC region has made commendable progress in addressing these issues, the journey to rise beyond being viewed as California's third-tier life science ecosystem continues.