Biotech Network Group May Fold

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A networking group created two years ago to nurture Ventura County's growing biotechnology industry has been foundering and may fold by year's end.

VCBio President Tim Osslund, a researcher at Thousand Oaks-based Amgen, said several factors have stalled the group. These include the absence of a full-time staff, insufficient membership and lack of consensus on how best to recruit members.

"I've talked to a lot of retail vendors who are excited about a biotech consortium in Ventura County so they could make contact with hospitals, doctors and universities," Osslund said. "But it takes a lot of effort, and there's been no one who . . . can spend hours and hours and hours drumming up business.

"We're in the right church at the right pew; I'm just not sure it's the right time."

Executive Director Mary Pat Huxley said there are up to 300 potential members in the region, which she defined as Ventura County, west Los Angeles County and eastern Santa Barbara County. These include start-up companies, established firms, consultants and suppliers with goods to sell to medical or agricultural biotechnology firms.

However, the group has only 17 individual and corporate members, and two-thirds of those hold seats on the board of directors. The group meets in borrowed space, aiming for monthly gatherings but often lacking the attendance needed to make decisions.

Current and past members include representatives of the county's two largest medical biotech players, Amgen and Baxter Healthcare Corp.; Oxnard-based Seminis Inc., the world's largest vegetable seed producer; and representatives from community colleges and the Cal State University system.

Huxley acknowledged that she has not devoted enough time to her mostly volunteer post since last fall, when she was hired to oversee the state community college system's biotechnology economic development and training program.

She said she plans to step down as VCBio's director by the end of November and is encouraging members to replace her with someone who has more free time and a stronger background in marketing.

Osslund cited similar limitations. "I'm a full-time scientist," he said. "I have a lot of ideas I could use to propel the group in a particular direction, but I don't have the time to push this."

Before it decides whether to fold, VCBio plans to launch a membership drive and hold seminars focusing on how local firms can attract investors and work with one another.

Bill Watkins, director of the UCSB Economic Forecast Project, said it's possible that VCBio hasn't attracted more interest because individual companies are doing fine on their own.

But Osslund said he believes the county's biotech community is getting large and diverse enough to benefit from this sort of group. "If it's not now it will be a couple of years from now," he said.

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