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San Diego Hosts World's Largest Biotechnology Convention

Sabrina German, a research associate with Primordial Genetics, works in the laboratory in this undated photograph.
Katie Schoolov
Sabrina German, a research associate with Primordial Genetics, works in the laboratory in this undated photograph.
San Diego To Host World's Largest Biotechnology Convention
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More than 15,000 people from 65 countries will be in San Diego beginning Monday to attend the world's largest biotechnology convention. Over four days, they'll be talking about everything from stem cell research to genome sequencing to the shifting role of large pharmaceutical companies.

And the annual BIO International Convention is in San Diego for a reason.

BIO Keynote Luncheons

Tuesday: Sir Richard Branson, an entrepreneur and founder of Virgin Group.

Wednesday: Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, a possible Democratic presidential candidate in 2016.

Neither address is open to the public.

The region consistently ranks among the nation's top life science clusters, according to Biocom, San Diego's biotechnology group. Entrepreneurs, researchers and technicians are all important to an industry that feeds the local economy.

"Biotech was the only industry in California in which job growth actually occurred throughout the recession," said Joe Panetta, president and CEO of Biocom. "There's no other sector you can point to where that happened, so it is pretty attractive as a recession proof sector."

The economic punch is potent. A 2013 study by Biocom found the life science sector contributes $14 billion in direct economic activity that supports 68,422 jobs.

Local companies such as Illumina, Nuvasive and ISIS Pharmaceuticals sit beside multinational corporations, including Merck, Pfizer, and Johnson and Johnson. All are looking for the next big thing, although that next big thing could end up being small.

Helge Zieler, founder of Primordial Genetics in San Diego, wants to build better microbes. Zieler's company has taken up residence in Janssen Labs, a biotech incubator managed by Johnson and Johnson.

The idea at the incubator is to nurture new firms by giving them access to equipment and expertise. Zieler's firm started as a single workbench in a common lab and now occupies a lab suite.

"Nobody works in a vacuum, and a small company is kind of like a small plant," Zieler said. "If you stick a small plant out in the desert, it can't live. But if you put it in a forest or a meadow in the vicinity of other plants, it has a chance."

This was Johnson and Johnson's first incubator, and it is the largest of four run by the firm. The facility is not in San Diego by accident.

"We are wrapped with world class research institutions," Chelsea Hewitt, head of marketing for Janssen Labs, said. "The commercialization capabilities of San Diego are extremely strong. But there was not really a location for life science companies to get access to flexible, capital efficient lab space and equipment."

More than 30 companies are actively working in this facility. It is a competitive process to land here, but there is no obligation to sell what companies develop to Johnson and Johnson.

"We've already had three companies move up and out of the incubator," Hewitt said. "The most recent one is going from 2,000 square feet and graduating to a 10,000-square-foot facility," Hewitt said.

David Tripi, Janssen Healthcare Innovation's global head of operations, hopes Care-4-Today turns into one of those success stories. His team is developing a mobile health care manager. The app can help people stay on top of complicated medical dosage routines.

A patient uses the Care-4-Today health manager app in this undated photo.
A patient uses the Care-4-Today health manager app in this undated photo.

"Its one of the only medication adherence apps that shows you the image of the pill. So you see the front and the back of every tablet," Tripi said.

The application works on any phone or tablet, and it can send notifications to loved ones if a dose is missed, Tripi said. The app does all that while protecting patient confidentiality.

"This is why we're in San Diego. San Diego really is the wireless health capital," Tripi said. "We've been able to recruit a great team locally of people that have worked in this space for quite a while."

Personal digital health tools could become an emerging force in San Diego's biotech cluster. Biocom's Panetta said the technology takes advantage of three areas that prosper in San Diego: biotechnology, telecommunications and medical devices.

"They're all beginning to come together, and this will be a big thing here in San Diego because we've grown all of those sectors over time and they're beginning to converge," Panetta said. "So that we've got devices, for example, that can monitor your blood glucose if you're diabetic, transmit the test results to a physician to give you a read out or simply administer you insulin."

Panetta said San Diego companies continue to spawn new ideas, technologies and products.

San Diego-area companies will be well represented this week at Bio 2014. More than 50 firms from the region have paid for display space at the convention.

San Diego Hosts World's Largest Biotechnology Convention

Corrected: December 1, 2022 at 11:28 AM PST
KPBS' Maureen Cavanaugh, Patty Lane and Peggy Pico contributed to the Midday and Evening Edition segments
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