Choosing South City

In 1978, when biotech startup Genentech was looking for a place to establish its headquarters, there were some obvious options. It could have expanded in San Francisco, where it was launched. It could look across the Bay in Berkeley and find space near the university. Even Boston beckoned, as it was the only other hotbed of early experimentation in biotech. Instead, founders Bob Swanson and Herb Boyer opted for the less obvious choice of South San Francisco—a decision that would have a lasting impact on both the company and the city it calls home.

Nestled along the western shore of San Francisco Bay, the economic heart of South San Francisco has long been its dedicated industrial area east of the US 101 freeway. When Genentech first arrived, it settled in a warehouse building amid industries that had defined the city for decades: steel mills, paint plants, freight forwarding—and even a donut factory.

Bethlehem shipyards, 1952. Photo courtesy of South San Francisco Public Library Local History Collection.

Though it might not have seemed like a natural base for a company conducting research at the cutting edge of life science, Genentech not only set up shop where those once innovative “smokestack” industries were fading, it never left. Others would eventually follow in its footsteps and South San Francisco, “The Industrial City,” would experience its third great evolution—from meatpacking to steel manufacturing to biotech hub.

“I’m continuously inspired by the resilience and reinvention of South San Francisco,” said City Manager Mike Futrell. “It’s still amazing to think that on the very site where Bethlehem Steel stood, Genentech stands today. South San Francisco built the steel for the BART tunnel, the wire rope for the Golden Gate Bridge. We built Liberty Ships. And when that steel industry died, the city didn’t suffer the same fate as other steel mill towns, because the biotech industry established itself here.”

From a handful of employees in a rented warehouse space, Genentech is now the principal employer in the city, with approximately 12,000 people.

City leaders did more than welcome their new industry: They set about making it the centerpiece of the city’s business base for the 21st Century. They were “purposeful” about planning for the industry’s growth, Futrell noted, a significant factor in enabling Genentech to expand rapidly and bring new medicines to patients, as well as attracting even more biotech companies to the area.

Aerial view of Bethlehem Steel Company, 1954. Photo courtesy of South San Francisco Public Library Local History Collection.

In addition to the support it received from the city, Genentech found everything it needed in South San Francisco from the beginning. It was close to major sources of new biotech talent, including Stanford University and UC San Francisco, as well as the growing venture capital community in Palo Alto. The separate industrial area that the city’s founders had wisely created also proved a major advantage.

“There was a clear demarcation between the residential areas of the city and the more industrial warehouse section,” said Jim Panek, former head of product operations at Genentech. This meant less likelihood of friction between the growing company and residential neighbors. It’s something that has probably also helped downtown South San Francisco maintain a great deal of its original charm.

Genentech’s vice president of site services, Carla Boragno, recalls taking almost the same route to work as her father did when he managed Bethlehem Steel. “The downtown still looks exactly as I remember it as a kid,” she says. Her father would sometimes pick up dessert from Galli’s Sanitary Bakery on Grand Avenue and his favorite lunch spot, Bertolucci’s, is also still going strong, serving a new generation of workers.

Bethlehem Steel Co., 1953. Photo courtesy of South San Francisco Public Library Local History Collection.

Building strong relationships with the local community and being a good neighbor has always been important to Genentech. For more than 20 years, the company’s annual “Genentech Goes to Town” event has encouraged employees to patronize local businesses, support schools, and participate in community life. Biotechnology has become a core part of the curriculum in South San Francisco schools from elementary grades on with partnership from the company and active involvement from its employees. And as Genentech continues to grow, sustainable design is at the top of the list—from energy conservation to “healthy” buildings. “We just finished a small project that will save 25 million gallons of water a year,” Boragno said. “Our people are proud to work at a company that does things like this.”

From a handful of employees in a rented warehouse space, Genentech is now the principal employer in the city, with approximately 12,000 people working on a 63-building campus. It’s the largest single biotech research facility in the world. That’s a long way from 1978, when few people in South San Francisco even knew what biotechnology was.

I'm continuously inspired by the resilience and reinvention of South San Francisco...It’s still amazing to think that on the very site where Bethlehem Steel stood, Genentech stands today.

“Somebody told the construction workers we were making giant rabbits,” said Boragno. “There were even T-shirts printed up saying ‘Have You Seen the Giant Rabbit?’”

Though the science was new, fortunately, even then city leaders understood that the promise of biotech was enormous. Today with more than 200 life sciences companies employing 20,000 people—many of them local residents—it’s clear that the close relationship between biotech and South San Francisco has a long future.

Genentech campus. Photo from the Genentech archives.

Title Photo: View of South San Francisco over Highway 101, 1970. Photo courtesy of South San Francisco Public Library Local History Collection.