Marin Economic Forum credited with growth of biotech in Marin

The Marin Economic Forum was feted by Marin County supervisors this week for its role in stimulating the growth of local life science businesses in recent years

By Richard Halstead
Marin Independent Journal

The Marin Economic Forum was feted by Marin County supervisors this week for its role in stimulating the growth of local life science businesses in recent years, and supervisors awarded the public/private partnership with another $150,000 to help cover operating expenses in fiscal 2015-16.

“This is a great partnership with the county,” said Supervisor Judy Arnold. “The forum has become the go-to organization for up-to-date information on economic trends in Marin.”

While the mood was upbeat, Supervisor Damon Connolly lamented the closure of the Renaissance Center Marin, a small business resource center in San Rafael, and Dominican University’s Venture Greenhouse, which assisted entrepreneurs.

“I’d like to see a greater emphasis on smaller business,” Connolly said.

The forum, a nonprofit created by a public-private partnership in 2010, is designed to foster local economic growth. Marin Economic Forum’s $375,000-a-year budget is funded by the county of Marin, contributions from businesses and individuals, and revenue generated from economic reports prepared by the forum.

The county provides matching funds up to $150,000 per year. Founding sponsors, who contribute a minimum of $10,000 a year, include Autodesk, Bank of America, Kaiser Permanente, Marin General Hospital, Whole Foods Markets and the city of Novato.

The forum has teamed with the city of Novato, the Buck Institute and other regional organizations to form the North Bay Life Sciences Alliance to promote biotech development in Marin, Napa, Solano and Sonoma counties. In its annual report, issued by the forum earlier this month, the alliance reported that life science jobs in Marin County have grown by 27 percent since 2010, while overall employment in the county grew by only 12 percent.

The forum estimated that about 100 new high-paying jobs in scientific research and development services were created in the North Bay in 2014; annual pay for Marin life science workers with post-baccalaureate degrees averages nearly $124,000 a year. According to the alliance report, Marin now has 32 major life science employers with the largest being BioMarin.

BioMarin moved its headquarters to downtown San Rafael in 2012 and in 2013 it purchased the San Rafael Corporate Center for $116.5 million. The report said BioMarin has approximately 1,200 employees and continues to grow in Marin County, where life science is approximately 1.4 percent of employment.

Robert Eyler, the forum’s chief economist and its former director, said during the upcoming BioCom 2016 conference in San Francisco from June 6 to June 9 about 100 attendees will visit the Buck Institute for Research on Aging. The conference, which will be held at the Moscone Center, is sponsored by the California Life Science Alliance and annually attracts participants from more than three dozen countries.

Chris Stewart, chairman and CEO of the North Bay Life Science Alliance, credited the work of Eyler and the forum with growing Marin’s life science sector.

“With his assistance, we really developed a regional approach to growing the life science industry,” Stewart said.

“Just on real estate alone in the last 24 months Biomarin has spent $200 million, and it plans to spend an equal amount over the next two to three years,” Stewart said.

He added, “The direct economic impact of the life science jobs just in San Rafael is $375 million a year. When you do the indirect that $375 million goes to almost $800 million.”

According to the alliance’s annual report, Marin secured, through the city of Novato, a tax credit of $2.4 million for one Marin life science firm: Ultragenyx. The credit was linked to Ultragenyx’s hiring 100 employees over three years.

In his report on the general state of the Marin economy, Eyler painted a rosy picture. The county’s 3.1 percent unemployment rate is consistently one of the lowest in the state and the median price for single family detached homes in Marin has risen above $1.1 million.

“Ultimately, we are getting to what we would think of as full employment,” Eyler said.

Eyler, however, tempered the good news with some caveats. He said Marin’s lower unemployment rate “is a reflection of your pool of residents not who is employed at local jobs.”

And Eyler said that while most forecasters don’t expect another recession before 2019, “We are seeing the signs of the growth phase peaking. How long we can sustain the peak is really the open question.”

Roland Katz, head of the Marin Association of Public Employees, asked Eyler if the unemployment numbers accurately reflect the number of people out of work and how the incomes of Marin residents who commute out of the county compare with those who commute into Marin to work.

Eyler said that statistics aren’t available to determine precisely how many unemployed Marin residents have become discouraged and stopping looking for work, but he said the true unemployment rate may be 3 percent to 4 percent higher.

Eyler said Marin residents who commute out of Marin to work earn an average of $120,000 annually while those who commute into Marin to earn $35,000 to $40,000 annually.