The image of a lab technician staring at a test tube has become economic development porn. The first time you see one of these pictures it's interesting, but after awhile they all start to look the same. Nonetheless, from Michigan to Mississippi, states, counties, and cities are falling all over themselves to attract companies who make their employees wear safety goggles. But unlike failed attempts to win Internet companies from Silicon Valley in 1999, current efforts to recruit biotech companies aren't linked to fads or an overheated stock market, and are likely to continue for years. But is it really worth it?
The current craze to recruit companies in the sophisticated science sector has led to at least 10 states being in the top 5 for biotech jobs, if you believe all you hear about the industry. It's kind of like how there are 15 cities in the country with the most bars & restaurants per capita, at least according to people I used to visit when I was in college.
The reason economic development propaganda has outdone simple mathematics is that econ dev officials like to choose from any one of a number of metrics that put them in the best light, so we often hear about VC dollars raised, PhDs per capita, patents filed by local companies, but none of these has proven to correlate closely with commercial success. As we learned in the late 90s, raising money from a follow-the-herd venture capitalist is quite different than earning revenue from a paying customer.
The best measure of economic development is not an academic degree or a me too investment in a hot industry, but economic activity. And the best way to measure that is jobs. For example, here in the DC area, we have more satellite jobs than metro San Francisco, NY, and Boston combined, according to indeed.com. We're the leader in this industry that shuns publicity and doesn't attract much VC, mostly because government's its #1 client. But that doesn't mean it's "multipler effect" is any lower, in spite of its limited ability to generate test tube photo ops. I've also heard that we're #1 in biotech due to Montgomery County's "science hubs", although I've never met anyone who drives to a "hub" everyday for work.
According to indeed, there are over 800 biotech openings within 25 miles of Fenway Park, but fewer than 300 within 25 miles of the White House. The numbers don't change if you center your search on Bethesda's Medical Center metro stop. MIT and the Boston medical industry have done far more to create biotech jobs than Johns Hopkins and NIH, in spite of the latter being a leader in research grants. University of Washington has also been a leader in winning research grants, but there are only around 100 biotech jobs within 25 miles of the South Lake Union biotech center Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has been developing in Seattle.
There are over 800 biotech jobs within 25 miles of Genentech's South San Francisco headquarters, but fewer than 200 near Amgen's Thousand Oaks HQ near Los Angeles. San Diego actually beats out LA for biotech jobs, although all the PhDs at UCSD and Scripps aren't enough to put that region in the same league as Boston or the I-78 pharma corridor in New Jersey. Once you get outside these coastal areas, the numbers fall off substantially, with many of the available jobs limited to sales & BD.
But even in Boston, just 2% of all indeed listings contain the keyword "biotech", fewer than the number mentioning C++ or Java, and nearly four times less than the number asking for SQL skills. But in spite of these figures, don't expect a disheveled programmer to replace the lab coat guy on your state's economic development website.