Since its founding in the 1800s, Vacaville has been known for its rich soil and agricultural production. But another kind of production has made Vacaville an internationally recognized hot spot in recent decades: biotechnology. Vacaville landed its first biotech company, Biosource Technologies (later renamed Large Scale Biology Corp.), in the late 1980s, according to Jim DeKloe, professor of biological sciences and biotechnology, and director and founder of the industrial biotechnology program at Solano Community College. The city parlayed that success into attracting multinational biotech firm Chiron Corporation (later acquired by Novartis and then Eli Lilly) and then leveraged that into attracting pharmaceutical company ALZA Corporation (later acquired by Johnson & Johnson).
All of this activity allowed the city to pitch Genentech, a DNA-technology pioneer, and it opened its 100-acre Vacaville technical operations facility in 1998.
“Getting Genentech was a game changer for the Vacaville economy,” says Tim Padden, economic development manag- er for the City of Vacaville. By landing what Padden calls “the 800-pound gorilla,” the region has been able to develop a vibrant cluster of life-science companies — including research and development labs, manufacturing facilities, startups, and service providers — that employ around 1,500 people in the sector, according to Padden’s estimate. Other high-profile firms in the area include Novici Biotech, DesigneRx Pharmaceuticals and Fisher Clinical Services.
“Every county in the United States wishes that they could attract biotech (for its) high wages and no smoke- stacks,” says DeKloe. Solano County has proven appealing to these companies because it possesses a combination of elements that make it ideal for biotech businesses: geography, infrastructure and access to an educated workforce.
Location, location, location
Interstate 80 runs through Solano County from its northeast
its southwest corner, and Vacaville, in the middle of that corridor, is in a bit of a sweet spot. It’s between two top public universities — UC Davis and UC Berkeley are approximately a 20-minute and 50-minute drive away, respectively. Sacramento is about 40 minutes away, providing easy access to policymakers at the Capitol, and it’s close to the Bay Area for commuters.
Vacaville also has a vast amount of available industrial land — more than 1,000 acres, according to Padden, much of which already has infrastructure like utilities, water and sewer lines — as well as 5.7 million square feet of industrial, research and development, and manufacturing space spread over three large business parks.
“Over the last two to three years, Vacaville has focused on getting infrastructure in place for industrial properties to meet the needs of companies that might be coming in,” Padden says. “By having the foresight to put the proper infrastructure in place ahead of time, we have the ability to fast-track projects and provide predictability in all of our top industries, including biotech, health care, manufacturing and food processing.”
It was Vacaville’s capacity to “effectively meet the growing demand for our medicines” that attracted Genentech 22 years ago, according to Heather Gloe, the company’s senior manager of corporate relations. Genentech’s Vacaville facility comprises more than 950,000 square feet devoted to manufacturing, maintenance, laboratories, office space and warehousing. Many of the facility’s more than 900 employees were educated within 100 miles of the site.
Educating the workforce
Giant facilities are nothing without a workforce that can put them to good use. Vacaville is known not only for its proximity to biotech brainiacs in the Bay Area and Davis, but also for its own development of biotech whiz kids.
When Genentech arrived, DeKloe was eager to make a connection
on behalf of SCC. He approached the company about working with him to develop an educational program to train graduates to become technicians at Genentech and other companies in the industry. While other biotech programs existed in the U.S., DeKloe says that those only taught “lab bench-level skills required to go into biotech research.” By contrast, DeKloe says SCC became the first college to emphasize the skills and knowledge required to work in the manufacturing sector of the biotech industry.
The products of DeKloe’s mission are SCC’s certificate of achievement and associate degree in industrial biotechnology, started in 1997, and Bachelor of Science in biomanufactur- ing, started in 2017 — the same year the school’s Vacaville campus opened its state-of-the-art $34.5-million Biotechnology and Science building that houses its biotechnology training facility.
SCC is the community college lynchpin of the region’s biotech educational offerings as well as of BioTech SYSTEM, a consortium that supports science, technology, engineering and math education in grades K-12 and community college, with an emphasis on biotechnology. The consortium has allowed educators and policymakers to chart a course for local students who wish to enter the biotechnology workforce.
Another crucial component of the consortium is the UC Davis Biotechnology Program, founded in 1986, to provide an organizing hub for biotechnology efforts on campus. (UC Davis is the only UC campus with a stand-alone biotechnology program. It graduates the second-highest number of biological and biomedical sciences undergrads in the country and ranked No. 1 on the 2016 Forbes list of the 13 most important STEM colleges for women.)
The program offers doctoral studies through its Designated Emphasis in Biotechnology Ph.D., an interdisciplinary degree that brings together 29 disciplines to train graduate students, 60 percent of whom, says director of the Biotechnology Program, Denneal Jamison-McClung, will go on to work at biotech firms like Genentech, Novici, Bayer Crop Science, HM.Clause and others in Davis, Sacramento, Solano County and the Bay Area.
“Biotechnology is where all of what we learn in life science and engineering come together to build complex solutions for problems in the world,” says Jamison-McClung, who is also the director of BioTech SYSTEM. “When you’re working on big problems, you need traditional science skills as well as an understanding of business, regulatory affairs, intellectual property and the process of bringing new tech to market. You need teamwork.”
Working toward the future
Teamwork has been even more critical during the COVID-19 pandemic. Biotechnology companies like those in Vacaville are at the forefront of developing treatments and preventions, as well as putting systems in place to reach as many affected citizens as possible.
“Right now, we need people who understand how to build diagnostics, implement clinical testing and scale up the use of robotics to process samples from patients,” says Jamison-McClung. “It’s challenging and brings out the best in people. Our students are keen to contribute.”
Pandemic aside, biomanufacturing is poised to continue its upward trajectory. Employment in the life-science industry increased by nearly 16 percent in the Bay Area in 2018, according to the California Life Sciences Association, giving DeKloe and other educators reason to stick to their mission of training the workforce in the region.