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McClatchy-Tribune  06/22/2014 9:18 AM ET
North Bay push for bioscience firms [The Press Democrat, Santa Rosa, Calif. :: ]

June 22--Economic development and business leaders in four North Bay counties have launched a new regional initiative aimed at attracting pharmaceutical and other bioscience companies to the area.

The initiative, known as the North Bay Life Science Alliance, is an effort to brand and market the area as an ideal place for locating life-science companies. The initiative stems from the growing success of the bioscience industry in Marin County, which is home to the Buck Institute for Research on Aging and BioMarin Pharmaceutical, which develops therapies for rare genetic diseases.

Sonoma County economic development officials participating in the alliance say they hope to lure bioscience companies by leveraging the area's existing medical device manufacturing cluster, the county's enviable quality of life and higher education resources.

"There's a foundation of an industry and a cluster of the life science already here, so we don't have to start from scratch," said Chris Stewart, chairman and CEO of the North Bay Life Science Alliance. The group includes life-science professionals and economic development officials in Marin, Napa, Sonoma and Solano counties.

This week, the group will attend the BIO International Conference in San Diego, the world's largest biotechnology gathering. Stewart said the alliance will target companies that are being "pushed out" of the Bay Area by tech giants like Google and Apple, which are driving up the cost of doing business there.

Stewart, who is also Novato's economic development manager, said participants in the alliance have been in talks for about a year. He currently works as a volunteer in the alliance.

The City of Novato provided an initial investment of $292,000 for the project last year, recognizing the need to launch a regional effort that included other North Bay jurisdictions. The initiative calls for a three-year $1.5 million marketing campaign that will require other cities and counties to contribute sums similar to what Novato donated, he said.

According to a 2014 report prepared by the Marin Economic Forum for the city of Novato, Marin County has more than 200 life-science companies that employ more than 1,700 people, mainly in biopharmaceuticals, instruments and diagnostics and research institutions.

But Marin County can only accommodate "a limited amount of life-science research companies and jobs since we have very limited land on which to build new research facilities," Stewart wrote in a 2014 staff report to the Novato City Council

In order to attract more bioscience companies to the region, Novato and Marin County officials determined that it would be necessary to partner with Sonoma, Napa and Solano counties to offer a complete "supply chain of services from research to clinical trials, manufacturing, packaging, warehousing and distribution facilities."

Sonoma County BEST, a county-wide initiative aimed at promoting local business retention and expansion, is part of the alliance. Its executive director, Carolyn Stark, said the regional approach is a better way to attract life-science businesses.

"Anytime you work together to attract companies, you're going to be more successful than if you are working on your own," Stark said.

Stark said Sonoma County offers a number of amenities that could help bioscience companies thrive, including academic resources at Sonoma State University and Santa Rosa Junior College. She said the county is also home to a successful cluster of medical device manufacturers that could attract life-science companies looking for an established manufacturing base.

And Sonoma County has space, she said.

"We have land assets. We have room to grow," Stark said, adding that there are many facilities in Sonoma County that could be considered for office expansion.

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