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SEEDS in Amgen’s Shadow

 Access to talent is a crucial component of any company, but it counts for even more in the biotech industry.The right team members can come from universities, with the big three – UCLA, California Institute of Technology and University of California – Santa Barbara – all located within about 40 miles from the Conejo Valley. Smaller, local universities such as Moorpark College bring talent too; the college has one of the oldest entry-level lab technician programs in the country founded in the late 1990s, according to Southern California Biomedical Council Chief Executive Ahmed Enany.Talent can also come from existing companies, with many individuals in the Conejo Valley primed for entrepreneurial life by big company experience, especially Amgen Inc. in Thousand Oaks.“Amgen laid off a lot of people, but they’re not going to go anywhere,” said Enany, referring to the company’s elimination of hundreds of U.S. jobs announced in February, mostly from its sales team. “Many of them would rather stay around and this is good for us because you can build a company and recruit some of this talent to work for you. That’s what Arcutis Biotherapeutics did. It’s what A2 Biotherapeutics did, it’s what Dyve Biosciences did.”The Conejo Valley’s cornerstone biotech company has a history of refocusing and shifting its personnel, announcing more than 200 jobs cut in 2019 from its headquarters and field operations.Golden TicketBut Amgen’s attitude toward startups within its periphery has changed. Traditionally it concentrated on internal operations, but its Golden Ticket program, which provides funding, bench space and other resources to fledgling biotech companies, has taken root in the Los Angeles area for the first time this year.“It’s mildly ironic that Amgen was founded as a highly innovative enterprise in Southern California and yet it has not really supported really early innovation around our own facility,” said Dr. Philip Tagari, vice president of therapeutic discovery at Amgen. “We’ve been more active in Cambridge, Massachusetts and San Francisco, and even Toronto. So it’s kind of an overdue activity.”“In the early days at Amgen, and Genentech as well, there was a more sustained record of internal discovery,” said Marvin Lieberman, senior associate dean and director of the doctoral program at UCLA Anderson School of Management. Lieberman has taught a biotech course every two to three years for about a decade, bringing together MBA and PhD students to discuss what it takes to build a biotech hub in L.A. “Today, the big companies really depend on the smaller firms, which the big companies were at one time. … (They) are doing the early stage work, exploring the ideas that are typically coming out of universities. It’s a kind of R&D that is harder to do when you’re a big company. Most of these things are going to fail.”Lieberman said there was “certainly no talent pool” in Thousand Oaks when Amgen was founded in the 1980s, adding there was no biotech industry at the time either. Amgen brought people to the Conejo Valley, including his wife.Added Lieberman: “I still live in Thousand Oaks. We moved here in 1990. Looking back, my wife was relatively early, but at the time it didn’t seem that way. There were already over 1,000 employees.”The Golden Ticket program bodes well for the biotech hub in the Conejo Valley. “The science students were kind of disappointed, until recently, that there hasn’t been more opportunity here. All this is changing and the biopharma industry, with COVID and vaccines and all that is happening in the stock market, scientifically it’s been a golden age of this industry, I think perhaps even more than the days when Amgen and Genentech got started,” Lieberman told the Business Journal.Partnerships between universities and companies help foster talent and keep it in the area too, Enany said.College of the Canyons in Santa Clarita has partnered with SoCalBio for a grant program, and California State University — Northridge has an educational partnership with Medtronic Diabetes, since the company still leases the land from the university.“It’s another program companies might end up replicating or benefitting from,” Enany said of the CSUN partnership. “You have a lot of resources around you. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the San Fernando Valley, Santa Clarita or in the Conejo Valley, you’re bound to find an institution five miles away from you that you can collaborate with.”

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