California Today: California Today: Grabbing Hold of the Life Sciences Industry

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The Salk Institute for Biological Studies, a research institute, is a pillar of the life sciences community in La Jolla. Credit Paul Piazza

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The life sciences industry is one of California’s strongest economic engines — and it’s growing.

A new report by Biocom, a trade group based in San Diego, found that in the last five years, employment in the state’s industry grew by 10 percent to more than 360,000 jobs, many of them high-paying.

In the life sciences, research labs and the companies that spin out of them turn science into commercial applications such as gene-editing tools, medicines and fuels derived from plants.

Some other takeaways from the report:

— California’s life sciences industry has commonly been identified with San Diego and the Bay Area, but they are rivaled by two other hubs. Los Angeles County hosts more than 2,400 businesses and labs, about as many as in all of Northern California. In Orange County, the figure is about 1,300.

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— In 2016, California’s life sciences were propelled by nearly $3.6 billion in funding from the National Institutes of Health. (President Trump has now created uncertainty by pushing to cut the agency’s budget by nearly a fifth.)

— The average life sciences salary in California is considerable: more than $108,000.

— Job growth may begin to taper in coming years as companies increasingly rely on automation.

Joe Panetta, Biocom’s chief executive, drew a comparison with California’s winemaking industry, which generates roughly $60 billion in annual economic activity.

For life sciences? Roughly $317 billion. “It’s growing. It’s strong. It’s a huge part of the economy,” Mr. Panetta said.

That’s despite California’s reputation as a high-regulation, high-tax state. Those factors are blamed for the industry’s tendency to locate their manufacturing and distribution facilities in places like the Midwest.

But for the most part, new businesses continue to be attracted to California, home to many of the top labs as well as universities cranking out a rich pool of hard-science graduates.

“I think the ecosystem keeps bringing people in, honestly. That’s my hunch,” said Steven Davidoff Solomon, a professor who specializes in corporate law at the University of California, Berkeley.

And then there’s the Pacific.

Many of San Diego’s roughly 750 life sciences labs and businesses have clustered in the seaside community of La Jolla.

Robin Toft, who runs a recruiting company dedicated to life sciences, said once someone takes a job in San Diego, they never leave.

“It’s such a lovely place to live,” she said.

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