San Diego: What it Takes to be a Successful Life Science Innovation Centre


Toshio Fujimoto, MBA, MD of Japan’s Shonan Health Innovation Park highlights key takeaways from the BIOJapan 2020 conference on why San Diego offers a good example of what it takes to be a leader in the innovative life science sector.


Over the past two decades, drug discovery has undergone a fundamental transformation from an entirely in-house model to an open innovation model. Naturally, many players seek new partnerships and gravitate to regions where talent and technologies intersect.

At Shonan Health Innovation Park (iPark), we regularly convene events to discuss top innovation ecosystems around the world, hoping to highlight the elements that drive success in the life sciences.

In October 2020, I moderated a panel at BIOJapan highlighting 20 cities that stand out as exemplary innovation centers. What attributes do these cities have in common?

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During the discussion, I was joined by an impressive panel of speakers from around the world, including Mary Walshok, PhD, Associate Vice Chancellor for Public Programs & Dean of Extension University at University of California San Diego.

San Diego’s journey to become a vibrant innovation ecosystem is inspiring. And San Diego offers a good example of three key attributes of what it takes to be a leader in this sector.

The city was in an economic crisis 35 years ago. But a 2019 report from CBRE ranks San Diego the third in life science clusters in the US. The city is a draw for top talent and home to over 600 life science companies. Now the city is not only a world leader in the life sciences, but it also is one of the top ranked technology ecosystems for nurturing tech start-up companies.

New arrivals include GradLabs and BioMed’s Center for Novel Therapeutics, which is partnering with the University of California San Diego – a premier talent producer of roughly 3,400 students with STEM degrees annually. Life science employment in San Diego was double the national average at 13.5 percent in 2016, up from 6.9 percent from 2006 to 2016, according to the report.

Dr Walshok explained how a successful innovation ecosystem requires openness, talent, and organizational dynamics. She explained that these innovation ecosystems are both created and continue to flourish if there is enough talent devoted to these principles to sustain innovation. Culture is evident when people “autonomously do what they need to do to be successful.” (Clayton M. Christensen



Openness, or a willingness to experiment, is critical to growth. People must talk candidly about their setbacks as much as their achievements, said Dr Walshok. Openness is the combination of being both geographically and mentally open to growth and innovation.



“Your skill, your reputation, your experience matters a lot more than what your family name was or what your social origins are,” said Dr Walshok. “In these open spaces, people with talent can thrive. And the space has to accommodate this kind of fluidity because different kinds of talent is energized by different environments.”


Organizational Dynamics

Dynamics also matter. That is why flat organizations are much more effective at innovating than command-and-control organizations.

Dr Walshok emphasized the importance of having foundations in place to attract and retain the right talent and support a social dynamic that is risk-tolerant, trusting, forgiving and open to learning from one another. “In these open spaces, people with talent can thrive,” she said.

Other model biotech locations that bring together academia, ventures, mega-pharma, and VCs for an ecosystem of innovation include Silicon Valley, Boston Shanghai, Beijing, and Singapore. To thrive, these operations much leverage the innate strengths of the city where they are located and provide space for players to collaborate.

Just as San Diego harnessed the local assets to become a model innovation center, other cities can use this collaborative approach grow. While we are all facing challenges posed by the global public health crisis, I am convinced that developing and enhancing innovation ecosystems worldwide is the key to helping the life science industry continue to grow and thrive.


Image credit: “San Diego” by talksrealfast is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

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