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BioTech History: San Diego is big part of a big gamble , Major companies bet...

by By Thomas Kupper, UNION-TRIBUNE (reposted by Thursday, Jun. 21, 2001 at 5:19 AM

San Diego is big part of a big gamble, Major companies bet millions that resistance won't kill market By Thomas Kupper  UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER

San Diego is big part of a big gamble , Major companies bet millions that resistance won't kill market

By Thomas Kupper, UNION-TRIBUNE STAFF WRITER

November 30, 1999

LA JOLLA -- At the edge of a canyon overlooking Interstate 5 in La Jolla, bulldozers began clearing land this year for what will be one of the largest of San Diego's many biotechnology research facilities.

Sometime in the year 2001, several hundred scientists affiliated with the Swiss company Novartis will move into a campus of seven buildings, all filled with the latest DNA-analysis tools, "gene guns" and other high-tech gear.

Their job: Finding new ways to manipulate the genetic makeup of plants, and new products for dinner tables around the world.

Europeans have banished such "genetically modified" foods from their dinner tables, but the uproar does not appear to have dampened the interest of American companies and others in the industry.

The industry is in a high-stakes gamble that resistance to bioengineering won't make its products worthless -- and San Diego is at the center of that bet.

"This industry has the potential to fuel the economic growth of the United States the way telecommunications and the computer industry have," said Stephen Briggs, head of one of two research institutes that will fill the Novartis campus.

"San Diego has the potential to be one of the major centers. It can be the Silicon Valley of agricultural biotech."

Major agricultural companies are all stepping up their efforts in bioengineering. Monsanto has sold off many of its other businesses to focus on biotech, and both Dow Chemical and Novartis are investing heavily to increase their presence in agricultural biotechnology.

Briggs' Novartis Agricultural Discovery Institute plans to invest million a year on the study of plant genetics. Already, 65 people are at work in a temporary building in La Jolla. That staff is expected to grow to more than 200, with another group at a separate genomics institute.

Instead of building its own capability, Dow simply bought the San Diego biotech Mycogen, which was a pioneer in the development of bioengineered corn. Now, Mycogen is pursuing new discoveries that could make plants resistant to disease or more healthful to eat.

Perhaps a half-dozen small San Diego biotechs are also working on agricultural projects. And while most of San Diego's dozens of biotech companies are focused on medical research, the agricultural side is growing fast.

Why push forward when acceptance of bioengineered products is uncertain?

Nearly everyone in the industry concedes that the backlash against bioengineered food has gained momentum because the benefits of insect-resistant corn, for example, aren't obvious to the people who actually eat the corn.

All these companies are betting that acceptance of bioengineered crops will increase, and in some cases are subtly shifting their approach to help their case. Their talk has shifted from promoting products that help farmers to finding products with consumer benefits that can't be denied.

That is a big change, because much of the earliest agricultural biotech work focused on increasing production efficiency for the highest-volume crops, corn and soybeans, offering the biotech companies the quickest financial return.

Now scientists talk more about "output traits," which means improvements that will be attractive to the consumer.

For example, instead of insect-resistant corn, the companies now promote their efforts to develop crops that will fight human disease. Instead of weedkiller-resistant soybeans, they talk about tomatoes that taste better or stay fresh longer.

"If I put out a tomato that tastes like the tomato I grew up with on the farm and sell that year-round, I could have a billion-plus product, and the consumers would buy it," said Jerry Caulder, a former chief executive of Mycogen who now heads the local start-up Akkadix.

Joe Panetta, a former Mycogen executive who now heads BioCom, the local biotechnology trade group, remembers when the company was introducing its insect-resistant corn and executives thought they had a sure-thing winner. The question of whether consumers would approve was largely an afterthought, an approach that turned out to be a major miscalculation.



Vegetables for vaccines?

"These companies made products for farmers. They didn't sell products to consumers, and so the thinking from a marketing standpoint was, 'What do we need to do to make these products attractive to farmers?'

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Screw responsibility, we'll play the consumer Practice Disobedience Thursday, Jun. 21, 2001 at 8:05 AM
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