Largest U.S. Biotech Hubs: Boston and the San Francisco Bay

Businessman and botanist reviewing sample data in a biotech firm's office.

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The biotechnology industry in the Boston region, especially Cambridge, is a powerhouse, even when compared with the innovation and development seen in the San Francisco Bay Area. These hubs function at a whole different level, compared with other biotech clusters in the U.S. The healthy rivalry between San Francisco and Boston has fostered rapid growth in biotech. In both cities, you'll find robust populations of small start-ups, well-established pharmaceutical companies, incubator sites, and biotech-focused research institutions.

Biotech Jobs in the Top Hubs

The regions around the San Francisco Bay and Boston substantially contribute to the ever-growing number of bioscience-related jobs. Most of the biotech jobs in Massachusetts appear to be more narrowly focused on pharmaceutical and biotech drug discovery. In 2017, according to the Massachusetts Biotechnology Education Foundation, the number of life sciences industry jobs in Massachusetts surpassed 70,000 for the first time. That represents a substantial escalation of the industry's economic reach, which had already been building momentum.

The growth within these hubs is somewhat to be expected: Silicon Valley has experienced decades of growth in all kinds of tech sectors, and many of the largest biotech companies are in Massachusetts. Sanofi, ​Pfizer, Biogen, and Novartis are major pharmaceutical companies with large research centers just outside Boston. These four companies alone represent a significant portion of the local job market.

San Francisco's bioscience industry quickly expanded and saw significant job growth. In 2019, the San Francisco Center for Economic Development estimated that the area's biotech sector employed 302,000 workers. Those numbers include professional, scientific, and technical services needed by the industry, so some of the employees counted may not have been directly involved in bioscience or biotech.

Boston's Focus on Drug Discovery

As opposed to the broader tech and biotech opportunities in California, Massachusetts is largely focused on pharmaceutical research and development. The Massachusetts Biotechnology Council's 2019 industry snapshot counted 2,253 new trials and drugs in development. The industry snapshot for California in 2019, as conducted by California Life Sciences Association, counted more than 1,300 medicines in clinical trial—that's the total across the entire state, not just the San Francisco Bay region.

Venture Investments More Concentrated in San Francisco

The prevalence of small biotech companies in and around San Francisco isn't surprising for anyone familiar with the quantity of venture investment in this area. Based on a PricewaterhouseCoopers/CB Insights Healthcare MoneyTree report, in the second quarter of 2019, Silicon Valley health care companies received approximately $1.1 billion in investments through 44 separate deals. Out of 11 mega-rounds of fundraising that closed in this period, only one closed in New England.

Leadership Role of Biotech Hubs

It may be impossible to definitively determine which city is the top biotech cluster, but what is clear is that, combined, Boston and San Francisco host high concentrations of biotech activity. Both areas have established broad-based biotech industry segments that are growing. Almost half of all U.S. biotech investment is made in these areas, about one-third of biotechnology employees work for companies in these areas, and about a quarter of U.S. biotech companies are located in one of these clusters.

These two regions are major drivers for global biotechnology innovation. Even in times of economic hardship, these regions displayed a unique mix of features that enabled the biotech industry sector to continuously thrive. Investment cycles may ebb and flow, but both regions appear positioned to retain their roles as biotechnology leaders.

Article Sources

  1. Massachusetts Biotechnology Education Foundation. "Job Trends." Accessed Dec. 8, 2019.

  2. San Francisco Chamber of Commerce. "Key Sectors." Accessed Dec. 9, 2019.

  3. Massachusetts Biotechnology Council. "2019 Industry Snapshot." Accessed Dec. 9, 2019.

  4. California Life Sciences Association. "2019 Life Sciences Industry Report From CLSA Shows Strong Growth in Jobs, Investment, and Therapeutic Pipeline in California." Accessed Dec. 9, 2019.