Where are the hottest drug discovery hubs in the US?

Map of the United States

DDW’s Megan Thomas takes a snapshot of the US biotech market and some of the ongoing research coming out of the US.

In 2021, Savills put together a report on the regional hubs attracting science/pharma investment1. The report notes that the focus on science and pharma throughout the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in the emergence of new locations as life science hubs and name checks Boston, Massachusetts and San Francisco, California as examples of centres with heightened investment appeal in the life sciences1.

Greater Boston, MA

According to a recent MassBio report2, Massachusetts is now the number one biotechnology hub in not just the United States but in the world, overtaking California. In 2021, biopharma employment grew in the region by 13.2% and continues to make concerted efforts to attract the talent needed to sustain this position2. The Boston Globe headline3, ‘Life sciences is poised to be Boston’s dominant industry. Has the area become the Silicon Valley of biotech?’, speaks to the optimism for continued growth in the region.

A cluster of significance in the region includes the Kendall Square area of Boston, which is home to over 120 companies within a mile, has been described as the “the most innovative square mile on the planet”9.

Dr Tamsin Mansley, Global Head of Application Science at Optibrium and President of its US subsidiary, Optibrium Inc, shared why Optibrium was attracted to Cambridge, MA: “Optibrium started in the UK, but as our customer base in the US grew, we opened our US subsidiary, Optibrium Inc, to better support our US activities. Due to the time zone difference, having an East Coast base for US operations was important, facilitating communication and training across our multi-continental team. We settled on Cambridge, MA due to the close proximity of many of our users, enabling us to easily provide high quality, in-person customer support. It also has great transport links, making it easy to reach the rest of the US and Europe.”

Dr Mansley also comments that the multitude of biotech and pharma companies in the Greater Boston region means that people regularly move organisations. She said: “When one of our customers leaves a company and moves to a new one up the street, they often get in touch with us, which helps us grow new business. The abundant networking opportunities with world-class researchers here not only help grow our customer base but are also useful for recruitment or identifying potential collaborators for new software integrations or developments.”

Research spotlight: A group of cells called haematopoietic stem cells (HSC) are responsible for the body’s ability to replenish the blood with new red and white blood cells7. Recently, researchers at the Broad Institute of MIT Harvard, Boston Children’s Hospital, and Dana-Farber Cancer Institute have found that HSC are particularly vulnerable to ferroptosis, a kind of cell death triggered by iron. Previously, scientists have studied ferroptosis mostly in cancer cells. This study, published in Cell, is one of the first to show that a normal cell type is also susceptible to this form of cell death. The findings also point to potential side effects of drugs that are being developed to boost ferroptosis to kill cancer cells and suggest new strategies for treating blood disorders caused by low levels of HSCs7.

Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill, North Carolina

By the 1990s, the whole Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill region had begun to be referred to as “The Research Triangle” (RTP), and it has maintained a reputation for world-class research since then. The North Carolina life sciences presence ranks fifth in NIH funding (2,716 awards totalling $1.899 billion), which was bolstered in 2000 when the Triangle’s collaborative model added two important components: the NC Biotech Center and the Microelectronics Center of North Carolina. Today, North Carolina ranks among the top three states in bioscience employment and has become a world leader in vaccine research and manufacturing5.

FUJIFILM Irvine Scientific recently announced plans to build a cell culture media manufacturing facility in RTP. Dr Erik Vaessen, Chief Business Officer Life Sciences, FUJIFILM Irvine Scientific, said: “We chose this hub for its accessibility, to our customers, a rich pool of talent, and an infrastructure that facilitates business. Over 450 life science companies including top pharmaceutical manufacturers are concentrated in the region. That makes it an ideal location for us to better support customers with more efficient shipping and faster delivery. As a well- known life science hub, we will benefit from the pool of talent concentrated in RTP. Workers are attracted to the area for the quality of life and the number of good jobs available.”

Dr Vaessen says that local government and business development partners work closely within the industry to attract companies like FUJIFILM Irvine Scientific to the region. He added: “We will be starting construction this year but look forward to becoming an engaged and supportive member of the RTP community.”

Research spotlight: In February 2023, Duke University co-investigators took a groundbreaking step in the treatment of geographic atrophy (GA), an advanced form of dry macular degeneration through the FDA approval of pegcetacoplan, the first ever FDA-approved treatment for GA. Pegcetacoplan, an injectable treatment, is the first medication to use targeted C3 therapy to diffuse the harmful three- pronged “complement cascade” triggered by GA, a physiological response that attacks and destroys healthy tissue. The approval of pegcetacoplan is based on positive results from the Phase III OAKS and DERBY studies at 24 months across a broad and representative population of patients.

San Diego, California

At the time of writing, the DDW team are in San Diego for SLAS2023 International Conference and Exhibition, which speaks to this Californian city’s appropriateness for such an integral event within the industry. According to San Diego Business4, the San Diego life sciences cluster is a major driver of the city’s innovation economy. The region is home to more than 1,225 life sciences companies and more than 80 independent and university- affiliated research institutes5. Moreover, NIH funding in life sciences in San Diego County totalled more than $830 million in 20166.

When considering the 80 independent and university-affiliated research institutes in San Diego, the region at large can be regarded as a cluster. Some key research institutes include The Scripps Research Institute and the Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute.

Mike Guerra, President & CEO of California Life Sciences, a life sciences membership organisation that advocates for the industry, described California as the birthplace of biotechnology more than 30 years ago and that it has been at the forefront of innovation and R&D ever since. He said: “The access to human capital is simply unmatched. [The life sciences] are the future of California, and that is why so many new companies are founded here, so many discoveries are made here, and why we must continue to foster and grow the life sciences ecosystem.”

Guerra believes that California’s system of higher education sets the hub apart – the state is home to 10 of the world’s top universities. He said: “This is crucial as an engine for scientific research and innovation. California academic and research institutions have been historically successful in attracting basic research grant funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Science Foundation (NSF), which helps seed the basic research end of the innovation ecosystem and often supports researchers’ early career work.”

Guerra added: “San Diego boasts an excellent academic and scientific environment with multiple large healthcare systems and leading research labs and institutions (UCSD, Scripps, Sharp, Sanford Burnham, Salk, SDSU Heart Institute), as well as multiple educational programmes for entrepreneurs and for workforce development. San Diego is home to a truly collaborative spirit within the life sciences ecosystem. We’re observing many stakeholders move to San Diego from other US hubs like Boston. It has a great overall job market, great weather, and better accessibility than other US hubs.”

Research spotlight: In a new study, published in Cell Reports, an international team led by scientists and physicians at University of California San Diego School of Medicine deployed an array of analytical and gene-splicing tools to parse more deeply the mysteries of mutation in pAML. Paediatric acute myeloid leukaemia or pAML is a childhood blood cancer, one that has proved confounding to clinicians and researchers, with a high relapse rate and relatively few identified genetic mutations (compared to the adult version) that might explain its cause.

San Jose, California

In September 2016, following the collapse of the dot com bubble nearly two decades before, the San Jose city officials turned to cultivating new businesses for the community: biotechnology8. Out of this, San Jose BioCube was established and it is now considered to be one of the top US start-up incubators. Also in this region is the Bay Area, which is home to what is known as Silicon Valley, a hub for start-up and global technology companies.

Susan Murphy, President of Molecular Devices, commented: “We are proud to say that Molecular Devices was “born and raised” in the Bay Area. [The company’s] early success with microplate reader technology laid a solid foundation for the company to diversify innovations in life sciences. [2023] marks our 40th anniversary of providing cutting-edge, fully automated, end-to- end workflow solutions.”

Murphey shares that Silicon Valley is now home to nearly 1,000 biotech and life science companies, notable opinion leaders, and an immense pool of creative and scientific minds. She says that the proximity makes it easy to collaborate with talent, which leads to creative breakthroughs for overcoming hurdles in the lab, advancing scientific discovery, and improving human health and quality of life.

Research spotlight: BridGene Biosciences, a San Jose-based biotechnology company that uses chemoproteomics technology to discover and develop small molecules for high-value, traditionally undruggable targets, achieved a significant milestone in its collaboration with Takeda in March 2023. Ping Cao, Co-Founder and CEO of BridGene Biosciences, said: “Our approach to drug discovery and development has two primary components, use of covalent small molecules to bind to undruggable targets and chemoproteomics to look at small molecule interactions with the proteins in live cells. These two can be combined to determine the targets that drive characteristics (phenotypes) of disease onset and progression and to identify the targets that a small molecule drug candidate interacts with in live cells. With these tools we can move very quickly from hit to lead in drug discovery.”

New York City, New York State

According to Empire State Development, strategic investment in biopharmaceutical, device and diagnostic research, development and manufacturing, is putting New York State on the map when it comes to its growing life science and biotechnology industry10. This is evidenced in a $620 million Life Science Initiative which has enabled the state to commercialise research and encourage the growth of a life science research cluster10.

The Empire Discovery Institute, with the University of Rochester, University at Buffalo and Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center as founding partner institutions, aim to fast track translation of ground-breaking research from the laboratory to commercial opportunity10. New York’s Wadsworth Center has partnered with biopharmaceutical companies to create commercial solutions that address critical public health issues – including Lyme Disease, one of the country’s fastest-growing infectious diseases. Meanwhile, IndieBio is a start-up development programme backed by global venture fund, SOSV, which invests in early-stage life science start-ups that are dealing with issues in human and planetary health. Not to mention, New York is second in the US for higher education degrees in biological sciences10.

Deerfield Management Company, an investment management firm committed to advancing healthcare through investment, information and philanthropy, commented: “New York City connects business, science, research, the practice of medicine in a way few other municipalities can. The financial sector is rooted here and there are nine major academic medical centers and New York City is home to the largest biotech workforce in the country (LifeSci in NYC | LifeSci NYC). The city is a natural incubator for emerging biotech and healthcare companies with VC investment increasing four times between 2016-18.”

Deerfield founded Cure in the New York City Life Sciences hub in 2021 to serve as a healthcare innovation hub for emerging biotech and healthcare companies. Cure has brought in 17-plus resident companies which have raised $550 million in funding since 2021 to uncover new oncology and age-related disease solutions; expand value-based care for the elderly; develop pharmacogenomic and diversify leadership in the healthcare and life sciences sector.

The company comments: “Cure’s ecosystem model for funding and supporting emerging companies, fosters connections across academia, government, industry, and not-for-profit to creatively work together to solve some of healthcare’s greatest challenges. In addition to supporting new companies, Cure has leveraged its 300,000 sq ft campus in New York City to engage leading advocates, researchers, members of the VC, private equity and financial sector, and entrepreneurs to advance the discourse around healthcare’s most vexing challenges.”

Research spotlight: Led by researchers at New York University (NYU) Langone Health and its Perlmutter Cancer Center, a new study shows that current chemotherapy affects the ability of a patient’s immune system to attack pancreatic tumours. The work revolves around the immune system and its T cells, which are designed to attack foreign organisms like viruses. To spare normal cells, the system uses ‘checkpoint’ molecules like PD1 on T cell surfaces to turn off their attack when they receive the right signals.

DDW Volume 24 – Issue 2, Spring 2023


  1. https://www.savills.com/impacts/ technology/emerging-life-science- hubs.html
  2. https://readymag.com/ MassBio/2022IndustrySnapshot/ executive-summary/
  3. https://www.bostonglobe. com/2021/06/15/business/has- boston-become-silicon-valley-biotech/
  4. https://www.rtp.org/history/
  5. https://www.sandiegobusiness. org/sites/default/files/Life%20 Sciences_0.pdf
  6. https://kpbs.media.clients. ellingtoncms.com/news/ documents/2017/05/18/biocom-2017- economic-impact-report-databook. pdf?_ga=2.204548176.1781433844 .1520445206-464668873.1518213879
  7. https://www.broadinstitute.org/news/ blood-stem-cells-are-susceptible- ferroptosis-type-cell-death
  8. https://www.biospace.com/article/ releases/san-jose-b-biocube-b-thriving- as-a-new-biotech-hub-in-the-bay-area-/
  9. https://www.us.jll.com/en/views/3- reasons-why-boston-remains-the- nations-top-life-sciences-cluster
  10. https://esd.ny.gov/industries/biotech- and-life-sciences

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