A city's bid to be 'gene' king
Gritty and gray, South San Francisco is emerging as biotech's anointed hub.
SOUTH SAN FRANCISCO, CALIF. — Step out of San Francisco International Airport, and this is the first thing you see: No sweeping vistas of the Golden Gate, no view of the Transamerica Pyramid's graceful spike with Telegraph Hill beyond.
Rather, there are only warehouses, the car-choked expanse of Highway 101, and the hulk of a distant spring-green hill, scored with thin white letters that read: South San Francisco, The Industrial City.
For most of the past century, this city has been the Bay Area's gristle, whether as a turn-of-the-century village of Italian meatpackers or a town entrusted with feeding and fixing America's fifth-busiest airport. It is all that its northern namesake is not modest, anonymous, blue-collar.
At the beginning of the new century, however, it is this unknown town more than its world-famous neighbors that could be the capital of America's next eco- nomic revolution. As Silicon Valley and then San Francisco led the world into the Internet Age, so South San Francisco now stands at the forefront of what many experts say will be the "next big thing": biotechnology.
Combining high tech's innovation with the quest to diagnose and treat diseases molecule by molecule, biotech seems certain to reshape medicine. If successful, even in a degree, its fiscal promise is huge with cities competing to lure biotechs.
But none can claim South San Francisco's status as biotech's birthplace: Through a mix of foresight and fortune, this windy vale of aging machinists and immigrant restaurateurs has established itself as the world's biggest biotech hub "the single richest concentration of talent and capital per square foot," says David Gollaher of the California Healthcare Institute, who led a biotech study here.
That's a coveted distinction.
Michigan has earmarked $1 billion of its tobacco-settlement money to a "Life Sciences Corridor." Hawaii dropped taxes on patents, copywrights, and capital gains from stock options to attract startups.
South San Francisco's biotech success is largely a reprise of what happened in Silicon Valley a half century before.
There, Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard drove in the first stake of a high-tech revolution when they founded Hewlett-Packard in a Palo Alto, Calif, garage a company that yielded scores of new startups.
Here, Herb Boyer and Bob Swanson drew up a plan for the first biotech company, Genentech, on a napkin. Like HP, Genentech has mothered its share of spin-offs.
The tales involve people willing to take risks, others willing to fund them, and timely ideas. But perhaps most important, experts say, is proximity to universities like Stanford and the University of California at San Francisco, which fuel research and supply employees. "[These hubs] happen for a very simple reason," says Franklin Berger, a biotech analyst at JP Morgan Chase. "A center of knowledge ... did a jump from the academic into the private sector."
In South San Francisco, that jump began 25 years ago, when Genentech's founders moved into their waterfront warehouse. Since then, the city's east side has been transformed, with help from city administrations.
Ironically, this was once the heart of "The Industrial City," home to Bethlehem Steel and warehouses fed by the stream of trucks rumbling off Route 101. Now, it is increasingly one big biotech campus, sprouting green lawns, tree-lined parkways, and earth-toned office complexes reminiscent of Silicon Valley.
Blocks away, however, atop the steps of South San Francisco City Hall, most similarities to Silicon Valley dissolve. This is on the other side of Highway 101, and here, there are no tree-shaded bistros where venture capitalists seal deals over panini with prosciutto. Instead, there is the green vinyl banner of the Grand Palace restaurant, offering dim sum. Law offices and video stores line Grand Avenue in modular buildings that evoke 1950s suburbia, not new urbanism. Cars roll by, pulsing to the horn-heavy rhythm of Latino music. Strollers outnumber cellphones.
Even the spring weather usually seems more Chicago than Silicon Valley, as a chill wind blows through a notch in the coastal mountains, bringing the Pacific fog with it in skeins of moisture that unravel as they spread eastward toward the bay.
Not that the city's new east-side industry has had no impact. Biotechnology firms now employ more people than any other sector of the economy. Moreover, tax money has helped the city improve child care and build new recreational facilities. There was even talk of taking down the letters up on Sign Hill.
Instead, they were made a California historical landmark. For all the changes, the soul of South San Francisco remains much as it always has been, economic revolution or not.
"We've always been known as a blue-collar community," says City Manager Mike Wilson. "Why would we want to change it? It's our tradition. Industry is not a dirty word."