Biotech and the world of tomorrow

Last week, I discussed the past of biotechnology, looking at its
historic development over the last 10,000 years. This week, let’s
consider biotechnology’s future, its promise for the world of
tomorrow and specifically how it will benefit the South Valley.
Last week, I discussed the past of biotechnology, looking at its historic development over the last 10,000 years. This week, let’s consider biotechnology’s future, its promise for the world of tomorrow and specifically how it will benefit the South Valley.

Just as the Bay Area served as ground zero for the computer revolution, our region is now in a position to become the powerhouse for biotechnology research and development. Just last month, San Francisco was chosen as the headquarters for California’s new stem-cell research institute – thus becoming a powerful magnet for the biotech industry.

The prestigious universities in our coastal region will also do their part in building the biotech industry here. The University of California, Santa Cruz, for instance, is the only university to currently offer bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. programs in bioinformatics – a field some believe might become the Internet of biotech. And Stanford University two years ago established its James H. Clark Center to promote ground-breaking research in bio-engineering sciences.

Just as the region’s universities fueled Silicon Valley’s development of computers and network systems, future university grads will undoubtedly start new companies here that will develop amazing biotech applications to benefit all humanity. It’s no secret the digital technology revolution dramatically transformed the South Valley as we know it. Our various communities changed seemingly overnight from small farming towns to the homes for many of Silicon Valley’s high-tech workers.

But those changes are nothing in comparison with the metamorphosis to come. The biotechnology revolution promises to have an equal or even greater effect in transforming South Valley’s communities – and economy – than what we experienced with the personal computer and Internet boom.

Already, the movers and shakers of South Valley are getting ready for biotech’s anticipated tidal wave. Recently, Morgan Hill’s Mayor Dennis Kennedy and other officials started exploring the feasibility of turning a 30,000-square-foot wing of the city’s former Saint Louise Hospital site into a biotech “incubator” for individuals and businesses starting up biotechnology companies.

The idea shows forward thinking. Its sets a foundation stone for looking regionally at biotech’s possibilities.

The South Valley must start exploring what resources here might stimulate a biotech industry to benefit the local economy. “I think all of us in Silicon Valley would like to see more jobs and see more businesses expand and do well,” Kennedy said in describing the incubator plan to me. “Biotechnology has the wonderful potential to do that.”

The South Valley’s most significant biotech development comes from Gavilan Community College. Not too long ago, it started its San Joaquin Biotechnology Center (run through its Small Business Development Center) to develop partnerships with various educational institutions such as San Jose State University and the Edward Teller Education Center at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. Its goal: stimulate local high school and college students to consider lucrative biotech careers.

“What they do is train science and biology teachers in biotechnology,” said Shannon Bishop, senior program specialist at Gavilan’s biotechnology center. “We’ve had quite a few teachers from Gilroy and Morgan Hill high schools that have attended the programs and incorporated the training in their teaching programs.”

Perfectly in line with South Valley’s farming roots, the center is now working with the University of California, Davis in plant “genomics” education. This August, it will conduct a workshop at Gavilan to acquaint local science and biology teachers to the concept of agricultural biotech.

Through programs such as these, Gavilan President Steve Kinsella and other college officials see South Valley providing the lab workers for the Bay Area’s burgeoning biotech industry. Developments impacting our region will most definitely include biotech agri-business products such as genetically modified crops and livestock. And tying in with the digital world of Silicon Valley, Kinsella forecasts research done locally that might one day combine life sciences with technological applications – such as advanced “biochip” products for medical and other uses.

“I think it’s really going to be the next occupational area,” he said of biotech’s possible future in the South Valley. “I think the applications are really limitless at this point.”

Also now casting its gaze toward a biotech tomorrow is the city of Gilroy. Garlic City’s business leaders are talking with developers about future biotechnology industry in that community. They’re specifically looking at the Southpoint Business Park region (near Wal-Mart, east of Highway 101) to accommodate biotech businesses. Gavilan’s training of local residents in biotech careers will be critical for development of the industry in Gilroy.

“It’s the chicken and the egg,” said Jane Howard, the interim director of Gilroy’s Economic Development Corporation. “We’re preparing the workforce, but the workforce is saying there’s no jobs here yet. Obviously, we need to make that happen.”

San Benito County’s plan is to tie its biotech future to what happens in Morgan Hill and Gilroy — hoping whatever success those two cities find in growing their own biotechnology industries might flow south into that section of South Valley. “We feel anything that’s developed in the region is part of ours,” said Al Martinez, director of the county’s Economic Development Corporation.

At this point, San Benito County won’t specifically target the biotech firms. It takes a broader view of trying to lure any industries it just happens to draw, Martinez said. “Our philosophy is just go for businesses in general – to attract businesses to this area,” he explains. Whether its leaders realize it or not, San Benito County holds an important asset to invite potential biotech businesses in the coming years. Its farming heritage and proximity to Silicon Valley make it an extremely enticing site for future firms interested in developing products for the agricultural biotech industry.

Of course, no one has a crystal ball that will forecast what economic benefits might come to South Valley from biotech in the world of tomorrow. But one thing’s clear. We must begin building our region’s biotechnology industry now.

Let’s start planning as a unified region – not as separate pocket communities – to bring biotech businesses here.

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