Boston’s Got Big Mo in Biotech, But SF is Pushing Back

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new drug and device approvals, revenues, R&D spending, patents, and more.

But culture, that great intangible factor, also plays a big role, and one reader thought I had underestimated it in my analysis of San Francisco. Una Ryan, a longtime Boston biotech executive and industry leader who moved to San Francisco, shared some fascinating and nuanced points that I think deserve some air time.

As background, she’s a native of the U.K., a former CEO of a publicly traded biotech company (Avant Immunotherapeutics) and a member of the BIO board of directors and MassBio board. She and her husband recently moved to San Francisco, near the city’s beautiful Presidio, with plans to carry on her biotech career while being closer to her grandchildren.

When she arrived last fall in the Bay Area and started exploring, Ryan says she was struck by how the difference in geography and surroundings affects people’s thinking and aspirations. She said she sees a certain collaborative magic in Boston, in having so many different companies, investors, researchers and hospitals packed into such a tight geographic zone. But there can be a downside to having so much in a small space, she says.

Una Ryan

“People will bite my head off when I say this,” Ryan says. “I love Boston. It’s a great place to run a public company, to run a private company, and a nonprofit. I’ve done all those things there. I just feel Boston is a small city. Everything beautiful about Boston is close at hand. The trees, the birds, the old statehouse, the buildings—they’re all close at hand. Here [in San Francisco] what’s beautiful is a mountain range or the sky, or the fact I can see the mouth of a harbor from my house. There’s a largeness here.”

That landscape, with everything from the views of the Golden Gate Bridge from a hundred different city hilltops to the beauty of the Point Reyes coastline, has an effect on regional culture and people’s outlook on life, she says. It’s no accident, she says, that some of the very biggest biotech and tech success stories happened in this Western place with a tradition of people who migrated here and believed anything was possible.

Biotech entrepreneurs in Boston, she says, are more influenced by popular notions of how companies need to be built now to be small and lean—to make them tastier for potential acquirers. To be fair, that short-term focus on pushing for the “exit,” rather than building great companies that endure, is pervasive in today’s biotech. But it’s not quite as widely conformed to in the West, she says. Big dreams still sometimes hold sway in this place of big landscapes.

“I think there’s more of an aspiration to change the world here. People here think big,” Ryan says. “The really big biotechs, Amgen and Genentech, they are here. Even in technology, companies like Apple, Google, Amazon, Facebook—they are on the West Coast. I don’t know that every entrepreneur thinks ‘I’m going to build an Amgen or Apple,’ but when you have a history or legacy, it makes you think big. I grew up in Oxford as a little girl, and went to Cambridge. The huge legacy of all those famous people, all those Nobel Prize winners, was extremely important in the humility of doing things. You realize you are part of a historic framework, and you hope to add some knowledge. It gives you something great to aspire to. These top successful companies on the West Coast have had an inspirational effect on the entrepreneurs here.”

It should be noted that not everything Ryan sees in San Francisco is rosy. The political focus in Northern California biotech is more on national issues in Washington D.C. that affect the industry, rather than state issues in Sacramento, which do matter. Boston biotech companies pay attention to the same national issues, but partly because their statehouse is so close, they can easily rub elbows with local officials.

Geography has its trade-offs in political influence, and also in global finance. In Boston, it’s no big deal for biotech executives to hop down to meet big-money investors in New York once or twice a week. That’s not so convenient for West Coasters, Ryan says. On the flip side, Californians are almost intuitively conditioned to look toward Asia, and think it’s no big deal to get on a plane to go to China. “In Boston, people will tell you, ‘I just got back from China,’ and that’s a big thing,” Ryan says.

The possibilities in Northern California are still “soaring,” Ryan says, although she sees room for improvement in local political engagement, and coordinating efforts among various industry support groups. She says she worries about California officials getting disconnected from biotech, or not really seeing how it connects strategically with the regional tech sector. That disconnectedness can lead to state actions that hurt, intended or not, Ryan says.

While people, myself included, can get hung up on the question of ‘Who’s No. 1?’ ultimately, it isn’t really that important. What’s more important is that the U.S. maintains its historic role as the lead innovator in life sciences, and that it has one thriving epicenter on each coast, and a network of smaller regional hubs that also produce important biomedical advances.

Boston, clearly, has done some wonderful things with compact land use and public transportation that have had a positive effect on its biotech hub. The San Francisco Bay Area, a place designed for the automobile, has got to figure out how to move people around faster and create nodes (like the Mission Bay neighborhood) where biotech pros can mix effectively face-to-face without always having to spend 30-45 minutes in a car between meetings. The Bay Area also has a serious problem with an overpriced real estate market, which I think creates a deterrent for bright young people starting their careers and considering buying their first home.

The answers here aren’t obvious, and biotech executives alone can’t solve them. Biotech also can’t just exist in its own little bubble, either, disengaged from serious local issues, and expect everything to turn out OK. It’s encouraging to see Tony Coles and a number of San Francisco biotech leaders get involved to make sure the Bay Area doesn’t lose some of its biotech magic. Boston certainly can’t rest on its laurels, either. Like in all great rivalries, maybe these competitors can learn a few things from each other and push each other to get better.

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4 responses to “Boston’s Got Big Mo in Biotech, But SF is Pushing Back”

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  2. Mary Canadymarycanady says:

    Nice post Luke, I’ve often wondered about the intangible assets of a region that lead to a biotech hub being formed. In SoCal we’ve tried to start some groups in OC/LA and they didn’t do well due to the spread out geography. Interesting to think of it as inspiring in NorCal. In San Diego I don’t think it’s a coincidence that our academic institutions have a gorgeous view of the ocean, it is inspirational to the researchers.

    Funny how Mark Zuckerberg instinctively moved from Boston/Cambridge to San Fran to get Facebook off the ground. There is an allure for the tech and biotech crowd to go to California to grow their idea. I do wish California had the financial centers like the east coast does, so that we could be a place where more capital would be available to drive these big ideas. Publications like Xconomy help to flatten the world, however, great work!

    • realposter says:

      mary – Zuckerberg’s move to Silicon Valley wasn’t really “instinctive”. Originally they had no plans to move out west… until they business was getting big enough that they needed the tech talent. It was adviceto “go west young man”.

  3. Fortunate to have lived in S.F., San Diego and, most recently, Boston, and traveling quite frequently to all three great cities, I would describe Boston as a “small” ‘big city’, San Diego as a “big” ‘small city’, and San Francisco as a “big” ‘big city’, actually The Bay Area including Silicon Valley. Of course, this is an ‘apples and oranges’ comparison given the disparate histories, municipal/local infrastructure, academic innovation engines, and, importantly, capital funding. It is my firm belief that the edge in any such (dynamic) discussion will be ultimately based on people and invention, creating sustainable companies in a Darwinian sense: hiring and rewarding great people and developing superior innovation. Thanks for the nice article, Luke…and look forward to another update in six months time!