Discover more from The Century of Biology
Betting on the Biohub
The Bay will continue to be a center of biotech excellence
Welcome to The Century of Biology! This newsletter explores data, companies, and ideas from the frontier of biology. You can subscribe for free to have the next post delivered to your inbox:
The San Francisco Bay Area will continue to be a major leader of the biotech revolution in the 21st century.
This prediction may seem completely obvious to you, or contrarian and provincial. If you’re a scientist, you know about the incredible density of opportunities and leading institutions. If you’re in technology, the very real tradeoffs associated with life in the Bay may not seem worth enduring—especially with the ability to work from anywhere in the world or to relocate to one of the many emerging tech hubs like Austin or Miami.
My goal is to explore and reconcile these viewpoints, and to lay out why I’m betting on the future of the Biohub. I’ll admit at the outset that my motivations are both personal and pragmatic. I’m a product of the West Coast. I was born and raised in Seattle, and have been educated and employed by incredible West Coast public research universities. I’m currently a proud Bay Area resident. This is home. It couldn’t get more personal.
On a pragmatic level, I made a conscious choice to stay on the West Coast, and specifically to move to the center of the action: the Biohub. When I say the Biohub, I mean the loose network of leading research institutions—UC Berkeley, San Francisco, and Stanford—that span the East Bay, San Francisco, and the South Bay, and the deep talent and capital networks that are diffusely spread across the same region. The Chan Zuckerburg Biohub, which coined this name, provides additional connectivity between these institutions. When I was deciding where to continue my scientific work, I knew that the Biohub was where I needed to be.
I arrived in the Bay Area at an interesting time. My soon-to-be wife and I packed up our belongings and drove down from Seattle during the height of the COVID pandemic. We spent a night in the ghost town of downtown San Francisco before continuing on to the even quieter South Bay. Online, there were constant stories about the San Francisco Exodus. All data seemed to indicate that we were going against the grain. As we arrived, it seemed like everybody else was leaving.
Zillow Research released a report a month after we had moved that seemed to confirm this. While most cities were seeing a drop in inventory, San Francisco’s Year-over-Year (YoY) inventory had increased by nearly 100%. Things seemed pretty extreme. Companies were moving their headquarters out of the city. It felt as if COVID had exacerbated many of the latent issues that plagued the Bay and opened a floodgate of relocation.
So, what were some of these issues?
A central problem is the incredibly strong aversion to building housing in the Bay Area—where it is illegal to build apartments in nearly 76% of the San Francisco, and is incredibly difficult to buy a home given that the city’s median home price is the highest in the country. This is true throughout the Bay Area. Palo Alto has a jobs-to-housing ratio of 16:1. I found this particularly surprising having grown up in Seattle, where there has been an enormous number of cranes in every part of the city throughout my childhood. The city has rapidly expanded outwards and upwards to support its economic growth.1
The housing shortage is only the tip of the iceberg. Despite a continual increase in taxes—especially on the technology industry—local policymakers have seemingly been unable to make durable progress on the region’s key issues. Homelessness is increasingly severe, there have been major controversies with the San Francisco school board, and a seeming inability to build effective rapid transit.2 In the technology world, people have started to ask: why should we stay?
This tweet was the spark of a movement to establish Miami as a major tech hub. New York’s tech ecosystem is also rapidly growing. After being burglarized and robbed multiple times in San Francisco,wrote about his choice to move to Austin—and why it may be poised to be a hub for manufacturing and hard tech. As the software industry matures and increasingly revolves around remote work, it will be increasingly hard to justify expensive downtown offices in San Francisco. No amount of relocation from the Bay Area could realistically stifle the growth of the software industry at this point. That train has left the station.
But this isn’t the century of SaaS, this is The Century of Biology.
Realistically, the biotech infrastructure in the Bay Area is of national importance. The Biohub is a central leader in the expanding Bioeconomy, and is a crucial component of our national competitiveness. It’s hard to even describe the collective biomedical brilliance embedded in this single region. Genentech was born out of research in laboratories at Stanford and UCSF, and their headquarters are located at 1 DNA Way in South San Francisco in the middle of a series of office parks completely packed with biotech and pharma companies. In the East Bay, Berkeley is home to Jennifer Doudna—winner of the Nobel Prize for CRISPR—and a booming biotech scene with an incredible density of cutting-edge companies.
As biotech evolves, some of the strengths of the Bay Area are becoming even more important. With several technological revolutions—such as Sequencing, Synthesis, Scale, and Software—young scientists and engineers with direct technical experience with these new technologies have a central role to play in shaping the future of the industry. One of the unrivaled superpowers of the Bay Area tech scene is its ability to empower ambitious young people who are on a mission to change the world. The same fluid capital networks that made the Bay such a major winner in the digital revolution are also playing an important role in the TechBio revolution.3
The Bay Area is perfectly situated to facilitate the deep integration of biology and technology. You can see the signs of something special happening. The hugely impactful Y Combinator tech accelerator now funds more biotech startups each year than any other investor. Talented young engineers who want to work on more meaningful problems than optimizing ad clicks are increasingly recognizing that biology has the most interesting data and software challenges of this century. Curious geeks from across the Bay pack Bits in Bio events to see how they can participate.
This is all to say that the party isn’t over. It’s just getting started.
Despite the serious challenges that the Bay Area faces, it still has a truly unique culture, wonderful human beings, and a powerful mix of biology, technology, and capital. If you’re applying to graduate school and want to pursue big ideas, you should factor this into the equation. At this stage of the TechBio transition, there are still serious advantages for founders and companies that make the Bay attractive.
If you’re already here in the Bay, I think that it is our duty to help make this incredibly special place more sustainable and resilient. I’m not trying to bring politics into a biotech newsletter—I’m highlighting the relationship between technology and place. The Bay Area is a truly unique and powerful hub for the life sciences, and we should take its health seriously. In biotechnology, we should follow the example of tech leaders like Garry Tan who are rolling up their sleeves and working to make change happen by supporting efforts like GrowSF.
The contrast between the incredible amount of innovation and the serious structural issues in the region can make life in the Bay surreal. One has to tolerate many cognitive dissonances. Yes, San Francisco is a beautiful global city that also has a beach along the Pacific Ocean. Yes, the profound harshness and suffering of the homelessness and open air drug markets in the Tenderloin is only miles away. In a single day it’s possible to experience a whiplash between the sublime and true disarray.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. The good news is that change is possible. Many major European cities that are widely admired for the cleanliness and safety had to grapple with their own serious problems comparable to the open drug scenes in San Francisco in the 1980s and 1990s. Encouragingly, these cities were able to implement effective policies to improve their situations, and we can learn from a substantial amount of research that has gone into analyzing what worked and didn’t work. If it is useful to consider an existence proof within the United States we can look to New York City, which also dealt with serious crime and safety issues in the 1980s and 1990s and was able to dramatically improve.
It should go without saying that life is a positive sum game, and that biotech and the biologization of industry are global endeavors. Every day, I read about incredible scientific results from around the world, and hear about epic startups and incubators launching across the country and the globe. One needs to look no further than the International Genetically Engineered Machine community to realize that the future of biotechnology is planetary.
My argument here is that efforts to improve the Bay Area are important for the biotechnology industry, especially as it merges with the technology industry. The region has all of the initial conditions necessary to be a leader in this revolution. The health of this crucial hub ultimately has national consequences for economic growth and security. This extends globally as national biotechnology infrastructure is increasingly important for our strategic competitiveness.
There is also a simpler reason to care about the future of the Bay Area. It is a magical geographic region with incredible forests and mountain ranges, wrapped around a sparkling body of water that flows outward into the Pacific. Each city in this region has incredible people to meet and places to discover. I care about this place. Ultimately, my mom always told me to try to leave a place better than how I first found it. I think that it’s possible to do this for the Bay, and that it’s important that we try.
That’s why I’m betting on the Biohub.
Thanks for reading this essay about the future of the Biohub. You can subscribe for free to make sure you don’t miss the next post:
Until next time! 🧬
Seriously, how is it possible that the only train connecting Silicon Valley and San Francisco is even slower than driving and doesn’t have Wi-Fi? Efforts towards the electrification of the Caltrain have been proposed since the 90s, but have yet to come into fruition. The project has been delayed again with an increase to the projected cost.