USC Looks to Make East L.A. a Hub for Biotech

USC's Malcolm S. Currie Hall during its construction. The building opened this fall and houses graduate students who are on the USC Health Sciences Campus. The university hopes to build a biotechnology park in an adjacent area, at the top of the photo. (USC)

The University of Southern California is working to make East Los Angeles a hub for biotech research.

“(W)e’re hoping to develop our biotech industry in order to basically keep our students and stop the brain drain," says Martha Escutia, USC’s vice president of government relations.

The effort picked up steam in 2012, when the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors commissioned a master plan for developing a local biotech industry that could make L.A. competitive with similar initiatives in San Francisco and San Diego.

The quest to develop a biotech center stems in part from the unavailability of local jobs in the field. In 2010, higher education institutions in Los Angeles County graduated more than 5,000 students with bioscience-related degrees. Many, however, have had to leave the region to find work. It took L.A. county nearly a decade, from 2001 to 2010, to add just 4,500 bioscience jobs, according to the master plan. Among the regional impediments for biotech firms is a lack of laboratory and office space close to research universities.

A biotech hub would expand USC’s existing medical campus in East L.A. and is a high priority for USC president C.L. Max Nikias, who says dozens of biotech startups with roots in USC research have left the region to set up shop.

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"We are at the dawn of this new technological revolution, which is biotech," Nikias says. "I don't want us to be marginalized or fall behind in this new industrial revolution."

To that end, he says, USC has recruited dozens of professors in bioscience fields over the past several years. Research institutes on brain science, Alzheimer's treatment and diabetes and obesity are located at the  university.

USC's proposal for a biotech hub is a partnership with the California Institute of Technology, whose scientists would potentially be able to locate their startups in the area; and the Los Angeles Unified School District. Nikias envisions establishing a training center in the area for high school and community college graduates who want biotech jobs.

Officials at USC say the hub could create 3,000 construction and 4,000 permanent jobs that would provide employment opportunities in the largely Latino, low-income neighborhood.

"Now why wouldn’t we want to have that in L.A.?" Escutia says. "And why wouldn’t the local community want to receive benefits in terms of jobs, research opportunities for their students; why wouldn’t people want that?”

But county officials have told USC that to move forward with the proposal, the university must first address the concerns of the area's existing community.

“It is going to change the complexion of the neighborhood, literally,” says Abel Salas, a poet who lives and works out of a warehouse space a few blocks north of the USC expansion site. He and others worry it could displace residents and won’t live up to the promise of job training for young people.

“It doesn’t seem realistic to expect people who are among the poorest and least likely to graduate from high school … to suddenly be trained or retrained to have a biotech job, and what’s going to happen to them?”

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The university held its first community information meeting on Saturday. If the plan moves forward, it also requires a land deal between USC and L.A. County, which is still being hammered out.

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