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San Francisco seeking to be the world’s top biotech cluster

Cambridge in the greater Boston area calls itself the most innovative square mile on the planet but San Francisco’s Bay Area is snapping at it heels


1 June 2022

By: Mike Young

Birthplace of biotech

California has four of the top ten biotech clusters in the US, the San Francisco Bay Area being the biggest and second in size only to the Boston/Cambridge cluster situated in Massachusetts1. Indeed, not long ago, San Francisco was rated number one and is keen to get back that position, particularly as it can claim to be the birthplace of biotech.

Although there had been research prior to that, it was 1976 when Genentech, often referred to as the world’s first biotech company, was incorporated in the city. Thereafter, things progressed rapidly with the company leasing a 10,000 sq. ft property two years later in what is now DNA Way in South San Francisco. It was the same year that the company cloned human insulin which they subsequently licenced to Eli Lilly and in 1979 they also cloned human growth hormone. Others biotech companies followed, notably Gilead in 19872. Today, with Genentech having been absorbed by Roche in 2009, the top ten biotechs in terms of revenue in the Bay Area include Gilead at number one followed by Biomarin, Nektar, Exelixis, Pharmacyclics, Fibrogen, Principia, Ultragengx, Five Prime Therapeutics and Rigel.3

Not just a biotech centre but a tech centre too!

The San Francisco based biotech cluster is situated in the Bay Area about 15 minutes away from the bustling centre of the city and in total includes over 200 companies with some involvement in biotech4. Sometimes referred to as Biotech Bay, it offers much to biotech companies that are thinking of locating there5.

One unique strength is having Silicon Valley as a neighbour, particularly as we now live at a time when there is an ever-growing fusion between AI, machine learning and healthcare6. In this respect, it is notable that Tim Cook, CEO of Apple observed ‘I think there will be a day when we look back and say Apple’s greatest contribution to mankind has been in healthcare’7. For biotechs today, proximity to Silicon Valley can therefore mean significant opportunities for cooperation as well as a huge pool of tech talent and increased availability of funding.

Another highly relevant strength is the broad swathe of life sciences talent and the proximity of major academic institutions like the University of California, San Francisco and Stanford. Also, with the pandemic boosting demand for lab space, the approval of 5 million square feet of new R&D real estate in the area, much of which is under construction5, is an important consideration. There are, of course, obvious lifestyle attractions too like the iconic city itself, Napa Valley, great beaches and access to skiing.

With its heritage, location and forward-looking mindset, the Bay Area is optimistic about the future and regaining its position of being foremost biotech cluster in the US. That said, it’s an expensive place to live and work so like its rival in Massachusetts, it is faced with competition from other parts of the US, often where costs are lower. There are now significant clusters evolving in many areas of the country. Ranked by size these include New York/New Jersey, The BioHealth Capital Region (Maryland, Virginia, Washington), San Diego, Los Angeles, Great Philadelphia, Seattle, Raleigh-Durham and Chicagoland1. There is no room for complacency for San Francisco or any other centre but all hope to prosper from the post-pandemic biotech boom as we wait to see who will lead the way.


  1. Philipiddis A. Top 10 US Biopharma Clusters. Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News. 2021
  2. Leuty R. A quick history of the biotech industry. San Francisco Business Times. 2016
  3. DeClue S. The top 10 Biotech Bay Companies by revenue. Biospace. 2019
  4. Wilson M. How many biotech companies are in the Bay Area? Restaurant – 2020
  5. Newpoff L. Bankers share what makes a good life sciences real estate opportunity in Biotech Bay. San Francisco Business Times. 2022
  6. Gourevitch A et al. Deep Tech and the Great Wave of Innovation. Boston Consulting group. 2022
  7. Wolff J. The Bio-Boom: Building a biotech company in Silicon Valley. Probe Magazine. 2019
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