When Arthur Young, founder and chief executive officer of Pasadena’s InvVax, was researching molecular biology at UCLA in 2010, he became infected with a mission: to create the first vaccine that could completely withstand and ultimately eradicate the constantly mutating and increasingly deadly influenza virus.
Last year, according to the Centers for Disease Control, an estimated 650,000 people worldwide died from flu. Moreover, there is a constant and increasing fear of a large and devastating pandemic as we all travel more and more around the globe, facilitating the spread of incurable viruses that would have been geographically contained in the past.
Back in his UCLA lab, Young started with a Herculean task: He took the entire flu virus genome consisting of 13,000 nucleotides — molecules which, when linked together, form the building blocks of DNA — and built a collection of all the virus’ possible mutations. Young was able to single out some small regions of the virus in which mutations would be fatal to its survival. It made sense, he figured, to focus on building a vaccine targeting those regions. The vaccine will ostensibly allow this key region of the virus to kill itself off while actively attacking other regions of the virus. In short: An inoculated individual should be “universally” immune to the flu. InvVax’s novel, patented approach distinguishes itself from the many others working to eradicate the influenza virus.
Fast-forward to 2013: InvVax was up and running out of the Pasadena Biotech Collaborative (PBC) incubator, a shared work/lab space. Human trials for the vaccination are expected to begin in 2020.
“We think what we’re doing could actually better the world in a very tangible, necessary way,” says Young.
InvVax is one of a burgeoning number of early-stage biotech/life-science companies that are choosing Pasadena as their home base. Indeed, over the past decade, the industry has been growing so rapidly here that Pasadena is on track to become a major biotech hub, vying with Boston, San Francisco and San Diego.
For example, in the past two years, the PBC — the area’s first life-sciences incubator — has more than doubled its space to 12,000 square feet while doubling the number of companies it hosts from 18 to 24. Says Robert “Bud” Bishop, PhD, chief executive of PBC, “We deal with early-stage startups with typically two to four people. So when companies come here they’re very high-tech and science-focused and typically aren’t familiar with how to attract startup money by attracting investors or how to obtain small business loans or research grants. We bring in experts in these and other areas to talk to them, mentor them.”
A current PBC company, Panacea Nano — founded by Youssry Botros, PhD, and Nobel Prize–winning chemist Sir Fraser Stoddart, a Northwestern University professor — recently scored a success in nanotechnology, specifically the use of organic, biodegradable, patented “nano-cubes” which time-release active ingredients in various products. Last December the team launched a commercial anti-aging skincare line that allows for various nutrients — vitamins and moisture-retaining elements — to supply “a fresh, continuous supply of active agents,” Botros told a Chicago-area publication.
Since 2004 PBC has “graduated” 14 successful companies, including Neumedicines, still in Pasadena, and PLC Diagnostics in Thousand Oaks. Says Bishop, “Of course it would be great if all of our startups ended up as successful standalone companies based in the Pasadena area, but many are bought up by larger companies that may be located elsewhere. Still, all this activity makes for a thriving and growing biotech community.”
There are also a number of early-stage biotechs now moving into the next level or the mid-to-late stage of bringing an invention into fruition. Synova Life Sciences, a medical device company working independently out of the Huntington Medical Research Institute (HMRI), is currently bringing to market an automated cell-processing system to harvest a person’s own stem cells from their fat (adipose tissue). That fat can then be reinjected for cosmetic or medical purposes without being rejected. Says John Chi, chief executive, “Synova’s technology is 30 times faster than the current gold standard, harvests twice as many cells and uses no chemicals so it’s safer. We want to help people regenerate their bodies to improve and possibly extend their lives.”
Along with the increasing number of biotech companies, there is unprecedented growth in related businesses. These include new clinical facilities, research settings, other incubators and laboratories. Following in their wake are biotech-focused real estate developers and architectural firms needed to carve out and design more and more square footage to house this biotech boom.
¿POR QUÉ PASADENA?
Short answer: Pasadena is among a few cities boasting a world-class tech-centered university — Caltech — as well as such prominent educational and research institutions as HMRI and The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens. Add to that a thriving science-skewed population (an astonishing number of Nobel Laureates — 33 at last count — make the city their home).
This gives Pasadena a ready-made community of science-oriented graduates and professionals increasingly looking to stay in the area. Competitive salaries — some say high salaries — particularly in biotech, nanotech and other specialized areas are a big draw. For example, an entry-level or starting scientist job (called “Scientist I”) is in the $150,000+ range in the Pasadena area. Granted, only those with PhDs may apply. But there are also increasing entry-level to middle-range jobs in the $50,000+ range for those with community college certificates and other undergraduate degrees. Numbers like these attract and ultimately retain talent.
And Caltech continues to grow and attract new investments. Last December the university broke ground for the Tianqiao and Chrissy Chen Neuroscience Research Building, a $200 million, 150,000-square-foot research facility focused on brain function and neuroscience set to open in 2020.
The university also received a $50 million grant from Panda Restaurant Group owners Andrew and Peggy Chern to develop micro and nanoscale medical technologies and devices. And Caltech is collaborating with the Heritage Medical Research Institute, founded by Caltech trustee Dr. Richard Merkin, which recently extended its research partnership with the university. In conjunction with Heritage, Caltech scientists are investigating areas including Parkinson’s Disease, insomnia and autism. “When there’s a geographical cluster including a variety of biosciences organizations, you see cross-pollination as they increasingly work together,” says Lawren Markle, spokesman for the nonprofit Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation (LAEDC), underscoring the thriving scientific nature of the area as a whole.
HMRI is also expanding, having recently completed construction of a $31 million, 35,000-square-foot facility dedicated to basic scientific and clinical patient-focused research. It is involved in several research areas: emerging themes include brain and heart interactions as well as electronic medical implants, particularly micro, less invasive ones.
“It’s fair to say that a biotech boom, in particular for early-growth-stage companies, is under way in Los Angeles County. Pasadena is sort of the unsung hub,” says Beth Kuchar, president of Innovate Pasadena, a nonprofit group that actively facilitates communication and collaboration between the area’s various medical, tech and biotech firms. Indeed, it’s essential to point out how crucial a role both local government and private organizations continue to play in Pasadena’s biotech/life sciences growth. The Pasadena Economic Development Corporation (EDC) works with nongovernmental economic development organizations such as Innovate Pasadena and the LAEDC to identify and recruit new biotech companies to the area.
They also work to entice established companies to relocate here. The Doheny Eye Center UCLA, a world leader in vision science and research that produces new diagnostic and treatment procedures, is moving from its longtime downtown L.A. headquarters near its former partner, USC, to a renovated space northwest of Old Pasadena. “We like to think of ourselves as the life-science ambassadors for Pasadena,” says Innovate Pasadena’s Kuchar.
Once here, Innovate Pasadena and other like-minded groups seek to facilitate communication and collaboration between the city’s various medical technologies and life-sciences companies. One way they do this: so-called “biotech mixers.” These “macro-sized” mixers — the April event attracted more than 160 networkers — are held fairly regularly in Pasadena. Attendees include everyone from newbie biotech scientists, researchers and company heads to academics and angel and venture investors looking to make connections that can lead to potentially fertile collaborations. “Think of the event as a big petri dish,” says LAEDC’s Markle.
After all, Pasadena could always accommodate a few more Nobel Laureates, especially in burgeoning biotech.