California Life Sciences Fueled by Education, Established Companies


Xconomy San Diego — 

New medicines, devices, and diagnostics produced by the life sciences community in California are giving clinicians better tools to fight disease and improve quality of life for patients around the world. Emerging technologies, such as stem cell and gene therapies, are beginning to make their mark.

According to the California Life Sciences Association (CLSA)’s latest California Life Sciences Industry Report, California is home to more than 3,400 life sciences companies. Some of these discover new therapies, while others perform supportive tasks such as conducting preclinical testing or operating clinical trials.

In 2017, these companies directly employed more than 311,000 Californians, 4.2 percent more than the previous year. When we factor in indirect and induced employment, that number increases to 958,000.

We’ve seen this growth throughout the state, with different regions adopting their own specialties. The Bay Area has seen an explosion of innovation in digital health. San Diego has developed major strength in genomics. Our latest industry report highlights Orange County, which has a critical mass of pioneering device companies.

There are many reasons like-minded companies coalesce in specific regions. Orange County is home to several established innovative medical device companies, such as Edwards Lifesciences, Allergan, and Medtronic, which act as anchors for the region. In 2017, Orange County life sciences companies employed around 45,000 people, an 11 percent increase from the previous year. In addition, the network of universities in the area—from UCLA and USC to UC Irvine and UC San Diego—produces a large number of engineers and computer scientists, ensuring a smart and dedicated labor supply.

Education is one of the major keys to California’s success in all phases of the life sciences. In 2016, California universities produced nearly 5,000 science and engineering PhDs, leading the nation by a long shot. These schools and research institutes attracted nearly $4 billion in federal funding to support their groundbreaking research.

In a nutshell, this is how the California life sciences ecosystem works: Academic research develops innovative new ways to tackle disease and other problems and produces well-trained PhDs to carry that work forward. Seeing promise in their research, venture capitalists invest in young companies. Last year, VCs poured $7.6 billion into California life sciences businesses–again, the most in the nation.

With these resources, companies continue to develop their innovative ideas into products: medicines and devices to resolve unmet medical needs, as well as genomic sequencing applications and other diagnostic tests to diagnose health problems and advance personalized medicine.

This ecosystem has been incredibly productive. In 2018, California companies entered more than 1,300 medicines into clinical trials. Many are intended to treat cancer, neurodegenerative conditions, infectious diseases—serious conditions where patients have major unmet medical needs.

The vast majority of these drugs—around 90 percent—will fail somewhere in the trial process. The United State has strong standards for patient safety and drug efficacy. We set the bar high. That’s how we know therapies that make it through to patients are worthy.

And though new therapies and diagnostics are important, the life sciences industry is taking on much more. Companies and research institutes are working to increase agricultural production, develop biofuels, and mitigate the effects of global climate change.

This ecosystem dictates CLSA’s priorities. We are proud of the many successes California researchers and entrepreneurs have accomplished, and we want to see them carried forward. That means investing in one of the best educational systems in the world. We also need to provide more support for K through 12 STEM education, focusing on women and underserved communities.

There are many other concerns, such as the regulatory and reimbursement environments. We also need to ensure these incredible therapies, devices, and diagnostics get to every patient who needs them. We want the many benefits of life sciences research and development to be available to all Californians, and with continued innovation supported by sound public policy, they will be.