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San Fran Mayor Willie Brown to Biotech: Choose Town, Not Country

BURLINGAME, Calif. Nov. 22 - It took San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown 20 minutes to arrive by car at a biotech conference near the San Francisco International Airport. It took him 20 seconds more to start lamenting that the conference, together with more biotech, weren't in the city.

 

I'm in a "foreign country" out here, Brown told the audience of biotech executives. "Ordinarily, I don't come to San Mateo County, unless to fly out of my city."

 

Brown, the consummate politician, stayed on message throughout his talk yesterday, doing his best to turn the heads of executives northward toward the Golden Gate Bridge, the Transamerica building, and other symbols of his city and away from the suburbs and low-slung industrial parks of Silicon Valley. 

 

His message: It's the people, stupid.

 

"Just the fact that you can work to 10, 11, one o'clock in the morning in [the San Francisco Mission Bay biotech] facility and still see some other human beings" is reason to locate research and development in the city, said Brown. "In Silicon Valley, about eight o'clock on, there is nothing except the coyotes ... and the skunks."

 

In a renter's market, with industrial real-estate occupancies falling since the dot-com bust, Brown acknowledged that filling space is a challenge but said the cost of space at Mission Bay would be competitive because of all that space to fill. (He did not offer any specific prices per square foot.)

 

Right now, much of that space is just that--dirt fields and roads leading to pockets of warehouses. Mission Bay, a plan led by the University of California, San Francisco to build a 303-acre mixed-development research park with offices, labs, teaching facilities, and living space for about 9,000 scientists, is hoped to be a magnet for private biotech tenants as well.

 

The space along San Francisco Bay used to be a railroad yard, and then home to golf driving ranges, said Brown. There is still a golf range, but ground was broken in 1999 and the first building, UCSF's Genentech Hall, is almost complete and scheduled for occupancy in the beginning of 2003, according to the university.

 

Brown, doing his part, asked not only that the Pharmaceutical/Biotech Operations Excellence Conference at which he spoke move next year to San Francisco. He also urged biotech executives to take a long-range view of their industry and invest where the "brain power" would be at the highest density: in the city. In Brown's San Francisco version of biotech nirvana, high living costs are offset by not needing a car to travel to work, and the public/private partnership that is Mission Bay will create a critical mass of interaction that will feed itself.

 

Brown didn't stop his appeal at the borders of Silicon Valley or even California--which, according to a recent report, ranked number one globally as home to the most biotech companies--but solicited biotech people from around the world to come to San Francisco.

 

"Unlike the Gap, which can go to Indonesia and put pieces together," biotech is dependent on trained technicians and scientists and these people are in the US, said Brown.

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