Silicon Valley was known as the Valley of Heart’s Delight around 1900, and was famous for exporting prunes and for its beautiful orchards. Inventors trickled in, including the developers of transistors, the predecessors of the computer processor. By 1956 they were making transistors out of a chemical called “silicon.” It was not only the valley’s name-changer, but its game-changer.
The rest is history. Hoping to repeat that history, there is a push underway to build another valley — the Conejo Valley — into a biology-technology hub of medical and pharmaceutical research.
“We’re still building critical mass. It’s grown a lot the last 10 years, but we still are very small,” says Frank Watanabe, co-founder and CEO of the heart-disease-research start-up Kanan Therapeutics Inc., in Westlake Village. “People don’t yet think of the area as a drug innovation hub. The more we can do to build up the understanding of our area as an important center of biotechnology, the more that will help with recruiting.”
Watanabe was a panelist at California Lutheran University’s Corporate Leaders Breakfast at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley last month. His panel included fellow start-up leaders Dr. James Treanor, president and CEO of Thousand Oaks’ ADRx Inc.; and Dr. Hai Yan, founder of REMD Biotherapeutics in Camarillo.
Their vision will require a three-pronged mix of dynamic research, investor funding and well-trained employees. Within this troika, research draws funding, more funding draws talented employees, and talent discovers life-saving pharmaceutical products.
Hopes for this local hub are cradled in hefty accomplishments. Yan is the inventor or co-inventor of a dozen patents and has authored more than 30 scientific papers in cell signaling (how human cells talk to each other) and metabolic disorders. He researches novel diabetes treatments. Watanabe’s start-up follows his more than 20 years in the pharmaceutical industry. Treanor is an expert in amyloids, which are abnormal proteins linked to brain disorders, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, heart disease, cancer and more.
Well-known science hubs, including the Bay Area, Boston and North Carolina’s Research Triangle, currently corner the storied “innovation-cluster” reputation for curing the incurable.
Watanabe and Treanor are obtaining some funding from venture capitalists. Yan raised seed money from private investors. One local advantage is the cost of living for employees, as well as cost of corporate space. Watanabe noted, “The cost of office space in San Francisco is almost double what it is here.”
The hub dream will require a talent pipeline. “There’s this disparity in attracting talented graduates,” Treanor said. “We’ve got to get companies excited about moving here. We have excellent science graduates; about 5,000 students from the life-sciences graduate locally. There are half that number in the San Francisco area, yet $1.5 billion of funding has gone to start-ups in the Bay Area, and only $60 million locally. So there’s disparity in how we’ve utilized the expert talent that comes out of our universities.”
The potential benefit to the state of a thriving pharmaceutical industry is estimated at $171 billion, and Treanor asked, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have some of that here?”