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Biotechnology Conference in full swing

Ohio and New Jersey made pitches at the Biotechnology Innovation Organization’s annual convention, but when it comes to the increasingly aggressive fight to attract biotech companies, Massachusetts and California are usually pretty tough to beat. John Storey for The Boston Globe

SAN FRANCISCO — Some places have better weather. Some have better access to venture capital. But when it comes to the increasingly aggressive fight to attract biotech companies, Massachusetts is usually hard to beat.

But that didn’t keep the competition from trying this week at the Biotechnology Innovation Organization’s annual convention at the Moscone Center here.

“We are shameless self-promoters,” South San Francisco Mayor Mark Addiego told executives from other states and countries. “We’re number one in patents, number one in venture capital. We claim to be the birthplace of biotech.”

“San Diego has more than 3,500 hours of sunshine per year and amazing beer,” said Jennifer Landress, chief operating officer at Biocom, the southern California city’s life sciences group. “We work hard and play hard. It’s not uncommon for an executive to pop down to the beach, surf for an hour, and go back to work.”


“Come bring your business to Virginia,” said its governor, Terry McAuliffe, who recalled that sitting next to former Bay State chief Deval Patrick at a BIO event two years ago stirred a sense of biotech envy and led to a push to build up his state’s industry. “In 1607, when the first ships came to America, they didn’t land on that dinky rock in Massachusetts. They came to the Commonwealth of Virginia.”

Iowa, drawing on its dozens of ethanol plants, has become the nation’s leader in bioagriculture, and the state recently approved a tax credit to attract more biochemical companies, said Governor Terry E. Branstad. But while the state wants more biotechs, he said it doesn’t even try to compete with Massachusetts in that sector.

“I give Massachusetts credit in biotech,” Branstad said. “It’s good jobs, and it’s important. We haven’t been focused on attracting companies from Massachusetts because they’re not necessarily the right fit for us. When we talk to companies about the best place to expand, we’re talking about biomass, corn, and soybeans.”


Massachusetts officials, by contrast, cited the state’s 550 biopharma companies, its 400 medical device and diagnostic businesses, its network of venture capital investors, and its world-class universities and research hospitals. There are more than 37,000 life sciences workers in the Boston area alone.

The New Jersey Pavilion at the Bio Convention in San Francisco, Calif.John Storey for The Boston Globe

“One of the hallmarks of the Massachusetts brand,” said Travis McCready, president of the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center, the state agency that promotes the sector, “is that while we compete furiously in the life sciences, we also know how to collaborate. We know how to work with San Francisco and San Diego whenever we can. And we steal from them whenever we possibly can.”

Whether rivals can steal businesses from Massachusetts is less clear.

Around the massive BIO exhibition floor, business development officials from competing states, countries, and companies were making presentations, engaging in networking meetings, and handing out everything from Swiss chocolates and cappuccino to water bottles and Czech beer. Minnesota officials were touting Discovery Square, a new bioresearch development at Mayo Clinic in Rochester. Russian representatives were talking up their country’s pharmaceutical manufacturing base and its cheap labor, courtesy of the ruble’s devaluation.

Despite their presence at BIO, most states and regions have little realistic chance of emerging as competitors to Massachusetts, California, and a few other biomedical clusters, suggested Joel S. Marcus, chief executive of Alexandria Real Estate Equities, one of the largest developers of properties for the life sciences industry. Marcus said his company focuses mainly on Boston, Cambridge, New York, and San Francisco.


“Life sciences companies want to be in deep rich markets for talent, collaboration, and innovation,” Marcus said. “And there’s just a handful of markets that have been successful. Cambridge is number one, the [San Francisco] Bay Area is number two. San Diego and Seattle have emerging clusters. . . . There’s a marginal number of companies that can be bought to move to other states, but the core venture-funded biotechs and pharmas aren’t moving from these innovation centers.”

That hasn’t stopped other state officials from setting up shop and making their cases at BIO this week.

“Biotech discoveries are in our DNA,” said Signe Pringle, managing director of the Maryland commerce department, who noted that her state is home to 50 federal agencies, including the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health. “Maryland is one of the world’s largest life sciences centers, no matter what anyone says. You can enjoy a diverse lifestyle while you work on your next innovation.”

Robert Weisman can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRobW.