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UCSD's Tata Hall for the Sciences is home to eight new teaching labs, four floors of research, and a nationally known nuclear magnetic resonance core facility.
Credit: CO Architects

The Origins of San Diego's Thriving Life Science Ecosystem

San Diego's rich history of scientific research sets stage for innovative lab design

Jennifer Swedell, AIA, LEED, NOMA

Jennifer Swedell, AIA, LEED, NOMA, is associate principal and senior laboratory planner with CO Architects.

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Breathtaking sunsets, parkways dotted with iconic Mexican fan palms. Seventeen miles of Pacific Ocean coastline.  San Diego’s Instagram-worthy surroundings and laid-back lifestyle have helped make it one of the largest life science ecosystems in the world. Depending on who’s analyzing and what metrics are being used, the region ranks anywhere between second and fourth among biotech hubs. How did a place mostly known as a military and fishing town through the 1950s transform into the hotbed of science and technology it is today? 

In the 1960s, the foundations of San Diego’s life science ecosystem were set by a top oceanographer, a world-famous virologist and a philanthropist whom Time called the “most beloved woman in Southern California.” The efforts of these citizen-scientists and benefactor laid the first nodes for a future life science network.   

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The first to fall into place was the University of California San Diego, founded in La Jolla in 1960 by esteemed Scripps Institute of Oceanography scientist, Roger Revelle. From 1954 to 1961, Revelle formed a coalition of proponents including congressmen, state legislators, administrators, and faculty, including Nobel Prize winner Harold Urey. UCSD welcomed its first class of undergraduates in 1961 and is the largest training ground for biological sciences in the world. The newly opened, six-story Tata Hall for the Sciences is a testament to UCSD’s commitment to life science. It expands education with eight new teaching labs, four floors of research, and a nationally known nuclear magnetic resonance core facility. UCSD recently hit a record high of $1.55 billion in research funding for the fiscal year of 2021. 

At the same time and less than a mile away from the fledgling UCSD campus, construction was underway for the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. In 1955, Jonas Salk and his team developed the first successful polio vaccine and made it available to the world for free. Salk leveraged his wave of instantaneous fame to realize a lifelong dream of a collaborative science institute. The stars quickly aligned with funding from the March of Dimes and a gift of 27 acres of land from the City of San Diego. Salk partnered with a legendary figure of the design world, architect Louis Kahn, and instructed him to “create a facility worthy of a visit by Picasso.” While not exactly Picasso, a visit from the fashion house Louis Vuitton did happen last year, when the institute served as the backdrop for the debut of Vuitton’s 2023 Cruise Collection. The modern silhouette of the building and the dramatic Pacific sunset created a stage unlike any other fashion show.

The vision set in motion by Revelle, Salk, and Scripps in the 1960s grew into the unique and resilient life science ecosystem of today.

The third founding node of San Diego’s life science ecosystem is health care, in the form of Scripps Health. In 1961, as construction of the Salk Institute and UCSD was completed, the nearby site for Scripps Memorial Hospital was being cleared. The influential philanthropist Ellen Browning Scripps founded the La Jolla Sanitarium in 1925 and expanded it into Scripps Memorial Hospital in 1964. The former sanitarium site became the Scripps Metabolic Institute, which later transformed into the Scripps Research Institute. Today, clinical trials are an important part of the Scripps health care mission. The Scripps Research Institute has grown to include expertise in drug development, bioinformatics, epidemiology, and microbiology, among other key disciplines.     The vision set in motion by Revelle, Salk, and Scripps in the 1960s grew into the unique and resilient life science ecosystem of today. Like attracts like, and the trifecta of education, research, and healthcare continues to draw top institutes, start-ups, established companies, health care systems, and talent to the region. Life science businesses number in the thousands, with labs and supporting vendors ranging from Tijuana to Carlsbad. San Diego is home to headquarters or west coast expansions of companies like Illumina, Pfizer, Thermo Fisher Scientific, the J. Craig Venter Institute, and the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute. 

The next generation of transformation is unfolding in San Diego. COVID-19 capital has brought venture funding to record levels of $6 billion in 2020. Real estate investment is pushing labs into downtown San Diego for the first time. The RaDD (Research and Development District) situated on 10 acres of San Diego’s waterfront by IQHQ is a 1.7 million square foot mix of labs and office space. The Muse at Torrey Pines is a $100 million, three-building redevelopment encompassing 186,000 square feet of lab and office space that opened last year and was developed by the RMR group. Scripps Health and Kaiser Permanente are in the process of building new hospitals. 

There are more life sciences and health care positions open than can be filled. Among the many roles available, lab managers and lab techs are in high-demand. For students or career pivoters who want a foot in the life sciences door but can’t shell out UCSD tuition, an alternative is MiraCosta College’s biomanufacturing and biotech research degrees. For $46 per credit, a student can acquire the skills needed for technical work in the regulated environments of biopharma and biomanufacturing.  

World-class education, renowned research, and strong health care are the basis of a successful life science ecosystem. Boston has Harvard and Biogen. San Francisco has Stanford and Gilead. They are also among the top 10 most congested cities in the US. San Diego’s slower pace, labs with surfboard lockers minutes from the beach, and average high of 67°F in January make it a great place to be for the life sciences.