Biotech companies across Los Angeles County are unlocking new solutions for a host of as-yet-untreatable ailments, from sickle-cell anemia and rheumatoid arthritis to all varieties of cancers.
But, in response to consumer demands for sustainable, environmentally friendly products, they’re also developing lab-grown meat replacements, chemicals that don’t rely on petroleum to make plastic and alternatives to animal-derived textiles.
And money is rolling in from the new multibillion-dollar, highly targeted commercial markets, inspiring partnerships among researchers of all disciplines, community advocates and investors.
Scientists are no longer fleeing the county en masse for greener pastures in San Diego, San Francisco or other regions that have long catered to modern medicine and biotech development.
And venture capitalists are increasingly looking to Los Angeles County to invest in the creation of new medical treatments and technologies informed by life sciences. These promise to deliver individualized health care with new, personalized market approaches.
Among the examples:
• In El Segundo, biopharmaceutical developers Kite Pharma and Patrick Soon-Shiong’s Nantworks are working on highly anticipated cancer treatments that don’t sicken patients.
• Monrovia-based Xencor, a 20-year-old company that began as a startup by a Caltech graduate who had a new idea to manipulate immune cells to protect against all kinds of illnesses, is now worth about $1 billion.
• LA BioMed near Carson recently began aggressively working to commercialize its most promising research discoveries for the first time in its 65-year history. The biomedical research institute partnered with Larta Institute to develop a crop of commercial biotech startups. Basepaws, a company that analyzes cat DNA and provides detailed ancestry information, already has moved into a lab there.
• A group of USC engineers, scientists and biomedical practicioners are planning a biotech business park in East Los Angeles called LA Bioscience Hub. They’re already making nanoparticles that can attach to specific tumor cells to illuminate otherwise hidden cancer cells before they spread widely.
• The Pasadena BIO Collaborative Incubator is nurturing handfuls of startups, including Deton Corp., which is selling its “Cough Collector” to conveniently get hard-to-reach samples to identify lung disease painlessly. CellVi Biosciences is creating skin care and wound treatments with stem-cell research there.
Accelerating new ideas
Science researchers across Los Angeles County snagged nearly $1 billion in federal investment last year, and more than double that from private sources, according to biosciences industry advocate Biocom. And the life-sciences industries’ economic output across the county has jumped by more than 11 percent since 2011, generating $40.3 billion and supporting 162,000 high-wage jobs in 2016.
Figures like that are expected to keep growing, as technologies continue to advance at lightning speed and scientists unpack new medicinal tools made available with modern DNA sequencing.
The future of health care is highly individualized treatments enabled by new technology, according to industry experts. USC officials hope to soon unveil “virtual care clinics” that unleash computer-generated doctors able to diagnose conditions using body sensors.
“We are converging engineers, scientists and biomedical practitioners to accelerate translational research, and we’ve built one of Los Angeles’ largest research buildings,” said Steve Kay, who leads USC’s Michaelson Center for Convergent Bioscience in South Los Angeles. The center is closely aligned with the East Los Angeles Bioscience Hub in development.
“The wet-lab space is what our faculty uses to make discoveries,” Kay said. “We’re specifically interested in the unique juxtaposition of engineering, medicine and science with the advent of precision medicine.
“We have an amazing team of mathematicians, physicians, oncologists and others who all came together and found new ways to detect circulating tumor cells.”
At LA BioMed, on the campus of County Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, construction is underway on a new 20,000-square-foot biotech and medical business incubator inside a 78,000-square-foot research facility. A separate tech park also is planned on the sprawling complex to foster bioscience businesses spawned by the research.
But the institute already is moving promising commercial biotech startups into existing lab space inside its Martin Building to accelerate the project.
“This is a declaration that we’re in the company-building business,” said Keith Hoffman, LA BioMed’s new vice president of business development and tech transfer. “We have done it in the past in one-off occasions. But now we’re doing it systematically. We’re selecting four to six companies now with the possibility to do research with our principal investigators.”
Hoffman said he’s been flooded with interest from researchers eager to work in LA BioMed’s brand-new labs with some of the world’s best scientists. The temporary incubator offers access to three conference rooms, a kitchen, and research equipment such as flammable-product storage rooms, coolers, and specialized microscopes.
Now, Basepaws is there doing feline genetic testing. The company can provide customers with their pet cats’ ancestral lineage and genetic health data.
‘They have to be determined’
Biocom, a nonprofit biosciences advocacy organization that already has helped build strong industry clusters in San Francisco and San Diego, is busily hosting networking meetings to unite Los Angeles County’s disparate biotech researchers and companies.
They’re now ramping up efforts to link venture capitalists with scientists.
“Indi Molecular in Culver City raised $11.5 million in the last few weeks, and one of its investors is Merck,” said Biocom’s Los Angeles executive director, Dina Lozofsky. “Puma Biotechnology in Los Angeles just recently got FDA approval” for its new early-stage breast cancer biopharmaceutical drug.
In Torrance, LA BioMed-spawned Emmaus Life Sciences won FDA approval this month for the first new treatment for sickle-cell anemia in 20 years.
“I think this is what has been building over the past three years, where companies getting started in Los Angeles are finding a more hospitable environment,” Lozofsky said. “L.A. doesn’t have the wealth of the San Diego and San Francisco regions. So, companies have found ways to be extra efficient and they have to believe in themselves. And they have to be determined to stay here. Hopefully, it will get easier — it looks like it’s going to.”
Xencor CEO Bassil Dahiyat founded his company 20 years ago as a recent Caltech graduate, but, at times, was barely able to keep the doors open. Now, however, the company is valued at about $1 billion and has partnerships with some of the nation’s largest pharmaceutical companies.
Xencor makes drugs that manipulate the body’s immune cells to protect against cancers, rheumatoid arthritis, allergies, and other problems in an office building adjacent to Monrovia’s quaint Old Town business district.
The antibody drugs they produce are highly targeted compared to their chemical counterparts. They’re built on recent deeper understandings of what happens inside the cells of the human body.
“We’re still centuries away from understanding everything going on inside a cell,” Dahiyat said. “We think our technology can continue to improve how these drugs work for patients by cutting through that biological complexity.”
Xencor’s finance manager, John Kuch, said the company’s road to success was paved with extreme skepticism.
“Biotech is very expensive,” Kuch said. “Xencor was down to the bare bones in 2013. We had less than two months of cash on hand.”
Now, the company is raking in cash from Novartis, Amgen, Merck, and others to further develop its ability to leverage the body’s protective mechanisms with enhanced antibodies.
Scientist-turned-entrepreneur Llewellyn Cox also is betting big on Los Angeles’ biotech potential. He founded the Lab Launch biotech incubator in Monrovia in 2014 — not far from Xencor. A second Lab Launch location will open in Chatsworth later this year.
Cox has since handed the operation — which nurtures new biotech companies, providing lab space and networking connections in exchange for reasonable rents — over to its new CEO, Marie Rippen, a USC genetics researcher.
“If we hadn’t built Lab Launch, all of these companies would have to go somewhere else,” Rippen said. “Wet labs need a large amount of equipment, electricity, security, and offices.”
The Lab Launch facilities near City of Hope are divided between labs and a wide open room of offices, where researchers from Caltech, USC and UCLA work side by side. The labs in the back have all the equipment the startups there need to investigate stem-cell therapies for retinal diseases and study the microscopic structure of body tissues, among other research.
“We’re still vastly under capacity,” Cox said. “But, when I started Lab Launch, there were zero available wet labs” for LA-based startup biotech companies.
Cox is now developing a new venture called BioBuilt in the Santa Monica area — a startup accelerator designed to connect promising young companies with investors looking for cutting-edge companies to back.
BioBuilt is focusing more on “biomanufacturing” than biomedical drugs and devices.
“We’re seeing biotech having a major impact on health care and sustainability,” Cox said. “Even chemicals — if you look at the major chemical companies, their products all rely on crude oil. These new companies are making sustainable chemicals, dyes, cosmetics, and all the household things we use with things like yeast and algae.”
Cox is in talks with startups that make spider-free silk using yeast, and lab-grown meat alternatives, like San Francisco-based Memphis Meats does.
“This is about making things more sustainable, more environmentally friendly, more animal friendly,” Cox said. “I think a lot of people are waking up to the idea that there’s a lot of money and work being poured into basic research here.
“These companies are pushing research into products that can make a tangible difference in people’s lives.”