“As you can see, all the skin of the building is ripped down,” says Marc Pope, executive managing director for Cushman & Wakefield, a commercial real estate company. “You can see the steel going up.”

What was once a neighborhood of cream-colored single-story businesses is now a glistening alley of biotech companies. Pope points to the headquarters of AstraZeneca, Jlabs and 23andMe. Each building is decked out with concierge services, spas, day cares and fitness centers.

“All these amenities are recruiting tools,” says Pope. “There is so much competition to get the best of the best.”

The pandemic has been very good for business.

sunlight glinting off tall biotech office buildings in South San Francisco
Office buildings line Oyster Point Boulevard, primarily home to biotechnology companies, in South San Francisco, on Nov. 17, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“It put the market on steroids,” says Pope. “Capital markets have been cooperative. [The] venture capital community has been very cooperative. COVID really put a spotlight on things.”

Last year investors spent nearly three times more than usual on the life sciences in California. South San Francisco City Manager Mike Futrell projects these companies will double their footprint from 12 million square feet to 25 million square feet within the next few years.

Lessons from the pandemic are spurring vitality in surprising sectors.

“Diagnostics for a long time was [much less marketable to investors than] the biotech industry,” says Joe Panetta, president and CEO of Biocom in California, a trade association for the life sciences. “You couldn’t raise money for a diagnostic to save your life, literally.”

But all those COVID rapid tests changed that. And companies want to get ahead of the next novel virus — so there’s a lot of venture capital focused on infectious diseases.

“Those new companies are not only growing themselves,” says Panetta. “But they’re attractive to large multinational pharmaceutical and biotech and medical device companies, many of which are headquartered in California.”

A blue sign for South San Francisco, 'The Birthplace of Biotechnology,' against a blue sky and a palm tree with an office building in the background
A sign for South San Francisco, ‘The Birthplace of Biotechnology,’ on Oyster Point Boulevard, on Nov. 17, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

And then there’s obviously the pandemic success of mRNA vaccines. Two of the COVID vaccines used mRNA — or genetic medicine — to trigger an immune response to combat the virus. Now companies like ReCode Therapeutics plan to use mRNA to treat other respiratory diseases. “What we’re doing is building on all that great innovation from the vaccines to go beyond vaccines,” says Shehnaaz Suliman, company CEO.

The company just opened a lab in Menlo Park. Suliman points to a small handheld nebulizer that looks like a flying saucer releasing a fine mist.

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