AstraZeneca opens South San Francisco facility housing 400 R&D staff

The opening is a "milestone" for the company, says AZ's chief medical officer, Sean Bohen. (AstraZeneca)

AstraZeneca has officially opened its new research facility in South San Francisco, bundling five of its Bay Area sites into a single unit at the heart of California’s biotech cluster.

The new location—at the Cove at Oyster Point—is the new workplace for around 400 employees gathered from AZ’s TIDE (Technology Innovation & Delivery Excellence) unit, as well as subsidiaries Acerta Pharma, MedImmune, and Pearl Therapeutics.

There had been speculation that staff from ZS Pharma might also transfer to the new facility, but they were moved along with AZ's renal-cardio therapeutic area from San Mateo in California to Wilmington, Delaware as of January 1 this year.

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AZ’s chief medical officer, Sean Bohen, M.D., Ph.D., described the opening as a “milestone” for the company and a “demonstration of our commitment to a strong and visible presence in California.”  The new facility would enable “talent from four organizations to work side-by-side at the center of where biotechnology and high-tech industry intersects,” he added, alluding to the area’s close proximity with Silicon Valley.

AZ first announced the plans two years ago, saying the location of the unit would help it source talent and partnerships, provide convenient access to suppliers, and also allow it to cut operating costs.

Other benefits, it now says, are a smaller environmental footprint, an open lab design that allows viewing of science in action from public spaces, and a greater focus on health and safety for employees with “on-site pantries offering organic foods, adjustable desks and ergo dynamic chairs, treadmill-equipped team rooms, and an on-campus gym.” It's not prepared to reveal any of the costs associated with setting up the new site.

The company insists its investment in South San Francisco doesn’t imply a lessening of its commitment to the U.K., and particularly its £500 million ($667 million) corporate headquarters and R&D campus in Cambridge.

“Collaboration is at the core of our culture and a key driver of innovation,” a spokesman tells us. “Both the South San Francisco and the new Cambridge strategic R&D site bring together the best of both worlds—a shared drive across our employee base to advance great science and bring new treatments to patients, while providing an opportunity to tap into collaborations in and around the respective regions.”

A year on from the topping-out ceremony for the facility, it’s become apparent that progress in completing the project isn’t being made as hoped, with AZ now talking about moving staff there in 2019 rather than this year.

The spokesman says that the goal is to start occupation of the Cambridge site as soon as possible, adding “we anticipate significant numbers of staff will move in in 2019.” Once up and running, Cambridge will be AZ’s largest center globally for oncology research, as well as housing scientists focused on cardiovascular, renal and metabolism, and respiratory R&D, he adds.

AZ recently published commissioned research on the life sciences sector in the U.K. which concluded that Cambridge’s 430 biotech organizations support 15,500 jobs and contributed around £2.9 billion a year to the country’s economy, predicting that could rise to £4 billion over the next 15 years.

The report also warned that if current levels of investment and talent in the Cambridge cluster are not sustained—for example if Brexit has a detrimental impact—it could cost the U.K. economy £7.9 billion over the same period.

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