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Land deals advance Solano County’s biomanufacturing hub plans

Developers have closed three large land deals, and another has obtained city of Vacaville approval for an office and commercial biomanufacturing plant, just 21 months after the city and Solano Community College jointly announced formation of the California Biomanufacturing Center Inc., a nonprofit corporation tasked with promoting expansion of biomanufacturing in Vacaville.

In the agreement forming the center, the city designated two locations with a combined area of about 300 acres for future biomanufacturing development: a large tract of vacant land south of Genentech’s campus in the Vaca Valley Business Park, and a portion of the planned Lower Lagoon Valley mixed use development southeast of I-80.

At the October 27, 2020, press conference announcing the biomanufacturing center’s launch, Vacaville Mayor Ron Rowlett described its primary objectives.

“We’ve done our research, and our goal is simple: Make Vacaville and the Bay Area the epicenter for biomanufacturing in the United States,” Rowlett said. “Our plans have the potential to expand biomanufacturing in this city to lead to more than $2 billion worth of development, 3.5 million square feet of commercial real estate development, and the addition of 13,000 jobs, which equates to $1 billion of payroll per year.”

Toward that end, the Vacaville City Council adopted a Biotechnology Fast Track Program to provide site selection assistance, a commitment to an expedited entitlement review timeline of 90-100 days from application submittal to land use approval, building permit review by the City’s Chief Building Official, and dedicated post-approval and inspection support.

Mayor Rowlett described the Fast Track Program as one more example of the city’s decades-long commitment to the biotechnology industry. “Vacaville has the land, infrastructure, and workforce that the biotechnology industry needs to grow, as well as a long-standing commitment to make doing so a streamlined and efficient process. With the California Biomanufacturing Center, we are building on our proven success with the industry to secure Vacaville’s continued leadership as a biomanufacturing center going forward.”

Vacaville as a biotech hub

In 1987, Alza Pharmaceuticals, with its U.S. headquarters in Mountain View, started the biotechnology migration to Vacaville by opening its first U.S. manufacturing plant next to Interstate 80.

Prior to Alza’s arrival, Vacaville was known primarily as an agricultural processing and trade center — drying, packing and shipping fruit and nuts grown on Sacramento Valley farms. Vacaville’s strategic location, midway between San Francisco and Sacramento at the interchange of interstates 80 and 505, and a short distance from Travis Air Force Base, contributed to its rapid population growth as a bedroom community in the decades following World War II.

Interstate 505 is the largely rural freeway shortcut for Interstate 5 traffic between the Bay Area and points north. Travelers not heading toward Sacramento or Reno turn north from Interstate 80 toward Winters and Redding at the Nut Tree Plaza, a well-known landmark and tourist stop, and rejoin Interstate 5 near Dunnigan.

In 1994, Genentech Inc., with headquarters in South San Francisco, purchased a 100-acre site in Vacaville along Interstate 505 north of its interchange with Interstate 80. Construction there began in 1994, and Genentech obtained FDA approval to commission and open that biotechnology plant in 1999.

By 2000, when Genentech secured FDA licensure for manufacture and distribution of its anti-cancer drug Herceptin, its Vacaville facilities became “the world's largest biotechnology manufacturing plant for large-scale therapeutic protein production,” Pharmaceutical Online reported April 27, 2000.

At that time, Genentech employed 400 full-time employees spread among seven buildings, with a total floor area of 310,000 square feet at its Vacaville biomanufacturing facilities.

Genentech’s website reports that its Vacaville campus remains “one of the world's largest biotechnology manufacturing plants for the large-scale production of pharmaceutical proteins from mammalian cells.”

Since 2000, it has expanded to 427,000 square feet in ten buildings. Employment at the Vacaville campus had also increased from 400 employees in 2000 to 1,200 by 2017, as reported by the Fairfield Daily Republic’s job survey.

Genentech’s presence led several smaller enterprises, such as Novici Biotech, Polaris Pharmaceuticals Inc., and RxD Nova Pharmaceuticals to open their own biotechnology facilities along the Interstate 505 corridor.

The Polaris Group Family of Companies first came to Vacaville in 2002 with the founding of Polaris Pharmaceuticals. The parent Polaris Group is a multinational biotechnology company focused on developing novel anti-cancer therapies and is involved in every stage of the drug development process.

Polaris Pharmaceuticals opened its current good manufacturing processes (cGMP) facility in the Vaca Valley Business Park in 2005 to manufacture experimental drug therapies for biotech companies to conduct clinical studies around the world.

Trained workforce is essential

The effort to bring biomanufacturers to this slice of Solano County has been parallel to an effort to train workers for the jobs there. In 1997, in collaboration with Genentech’s Vacaville team, Solano Community College developed the first biotech program in the United States focused on preparing students for entry into the biomanufacturing sector.

Dr. Celia Esposito-Noy, superintendent and president, said the college is one of only two community colleges in California to offer a Bachelor of Science degree in biomanufacturing. She also announced the roll-out, in the 2020 fall semester, of a new cell and gene therapy certificate program, the first of its kind in the United States.

The college also awards an associate degree in science and a certificate of achievement in industrial biotechnology, as well as a certificate of achievement as a biotechnology laboratory assistant. Solano College’s Vacaville center lies just north of the Vaca Valley CBC site, across Vaca Valley Parkway from the Genentech campus and Kaiser Permanente’s Vacaville Medical Center.

Agenus buys 120 acres

In early July 2021, Agenus Inc., a publicly traded developer and manufacturer of cancer treatment antibodies based in Lexington, Massachusetts, purchased 120 acres in Vaca Valley, including buildings formerly occupied by biotech firms and a vacant tract previously zoned for residential development.

Agenus announced plans to relocate its Berkeley-based research and manufacturing team to Vacaville and cited the city’s proximity to the Universities of California at Berkeley and Davis and quality of life as determining factors in its decision.

Polaris expands footprint by 15 acres

On Jan. 26, the city and Polaris Pharmaceuticals announced that it had purchased an additional 15 acres adjoining its existing facility in the Vaca Valley Business Park.

In the city’s announcement, Chris Huxsoll, Senior Vice President of Operations of Polaris Pharmaceuticals stated, “We are excited to expand our manufacturing and process research capabilities in Vacaville. The City of Vacaville has been a great partner over the years, and that was one of the key considerations in our decision to expand operations here.”

Vacaville Mayor Rowlett pledged the city’s continued cooperation: “We will work with Polaris through our Biotechnology Fast Track permitting program to get this new facility up and operational as quickly as possible, and we will continue to connect them to the resources they need to be successful in Vacaville.”

Transwestern Ventures buys 22 acres

More recently, the city of Vacaville and Transwestern Ventures, the real estate investment arm of privately held Houston-based Transwestern Companies, announced the acquisition and planned development of 22.4 acres in the southernmost tract in Vaca Valley Business Park.

In the June 30 announcement, Fred Knapp, managing partner of Transwestern Ventures, described Vacaville as “a biomanufacturing leader in the U.S., making this area incredibly attractive to companies looking for modern facilities in a region with a critical shortage of available life sciences space. Some of the world’s leading life sciences firms have come to Vacaville to capitalize on the synergies created by a combination of extraordinary talent, relative affordability, and the city’s strong economic and demographic trends.”

Transwestern plans to develop a 390,000-square-foot biomanufacturing campus in two phases. The first phase, set for completion in summer 2024, would have 233,888 square feet of building area. The second phase would follow, with 158,316 square feet. The buildings will be designed to meet tenant needs ranging from biomanufacturing and research-and-development space to healthcare and medical office uses.

The 50-acre, 700,000-square-foot planned business park Ascend Innovation Village in Lagoon Valley is envisioned to have quads, one of which is shown in this 2021 architectural rendering. (courtesy of Triad Lagoon Valley)
The 50-acre, 700,000-square-foot planned business park Ascend Innovation Village in Lagoon Valley is envisioned to have quads, one of which is shown in this 2021 architectural rendering. (courtesy of Triad Lagoon Valley)

Ascend Innovation Village at Lagoon Valley

The California Biomaufacturing Center agreement was signed in October 2020.

“Biomanufacturing has already taken root in Solano County, and together we can encourage more biomanufacturers to come here and produce the biomaterials and pharmaceuticals this country needs,” Rep. John Garamendi, D-Davis, said in the deal announcement.

The center targets a second location for future plants and accessory offices. A 50-acre innovation campus approved for 700,000 square feet of building area is part of the Lower Lagoon Valley planned community on the southeast side of Interstate 80.

Triad Lagoon Valley LLC, a subsidiary of Seattle-based Triad Development, applied on Dec. 1, 2021, for modifications to its business village plans, including permission for larger floor areas on each building level, increased building heights while maintaining a four-story limit, and reduced parking to accommodate a variety of class A offices, R&D and biomanufacturing uses.

“The proposed plan anticipates that changing market conditions will likely result in 100,000 to 175,000 square feet of the above developable area being utilized for biotech manufacturing and associated support uses,” Triad’s application said.

The city approved Triad’s master plan modifications for the business village on Jan. 21. Site preparation started late last year, and the first of 1,015 homes there are set to be built beginning this fall.

"The City is enthusiastically encouraging companies to relocate here. The abundant local resources include an infrastructure that provides reliable support services to Lagoon Valley,“ Don Burrus, Vacaville's director of Economic Development Services, said in Triad’s news release. ”The location, with proximity to major universities and our expedited permit processing, provides access to a highly educated workforce. In addition, Vacaville will create an incentive package to make it a top choice for businesses."

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