Seeds for biotech and wireless industries were sown on the La Jolla campus decades ago --
Two new industries rose out of the academic hallways of the La Jolla campus.
Just as UCSD cancer researcher Ivor Royston and his assistant Howard Birndorf were planting the seeds that would later grow into one of the world’s largest biotechnology hubs, former engineering professor Irwin Jacobs was co-founding Qualcomm to develop a new wireless communications technology known as CDMA.
Over the next three decades, those ventures would morph into dozens of spinoffs and support businesses, create tens of thousands of jobs in San Diego County and transform the area into a major high-tech center.
“You don’t have an industry like (biotechnology) without strong, innovative research and an ability to transfer that technology out of the academic environment,” said Joe Panetta, chief executive of the local trade group Biocom.
Such exchanges within the biochemistry world were a novelty 30 years ago. But Royston and Birndorf had been exposed to the process through earlier posts at Stanford University in Palo Alto.
Royston arrived at UCSD in 1977 to help establish a new cancer center. His research work focused on using genetically engineered antibodies to diagnose and treat diseases.
The question arose of how to move his discoveries into the clinical world to treat patients.
“I realized I had all sorts of issues. Manufacturing issues, how to grow (the antibodies), how to get them through the (Food and Drug Administration),” he said. “My grants weren’t going to cover it, and the university wasn’t going to cover it.”
He and Birndorf found an investor and launched Hybritech.
As San Diego’s first biotechnology company was taking hold, another former Stanford professor, Richard Atkinson, arrived at UCSD as the school’s new chancellor.
“He understood the model of faculty going out and starting companies, and he embraced that,” Royston said of the former chancellor.
Jacobs, an assistant professor of engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, turned down an offer to teach at UCSD — for two days. A rainstorm in the Boston area got him to reconsider, and he arrived on campus in the summer of 1966.
Jacobs remembers an early faculty gathering at the home of Harold Urey, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist and one of the university’s key early faculty members.
“As we came in, he said: ‘I understand you’re an electrical engineer. Please look out my window,’ ” recalled Jacobs. “Sure enough, looking out his window toward the La Jolla Shores area, there were a lot of telephone wires in his view. So he said, ‘As an electrical engineer, you have to do something about this.’ ”
It turned out to be a prophetic request.
A couple of years later, Jacobs co-founded a side business in digital communications consulting called Linkabit with two professors at UCLA.
Jacobs left UCSD in 1971 to run the company full time. It was sold to an out-of-state corporation in 1980 but left a huge impact on the San Diego business community as it spawned five spinoff companies and dozens of other firms that were founded by former employees.
After a brief retirement, Jacobs founded Qualcomm in 1985 with no real business in mind. He thought it might offer consulting services to companies and government agencies much as Linkabit did. In the end, Qualcomm pioneered technology used in many of today’s cell phones.
It put San Diego on the map as a hub for wireless technology.
“Nobody knew who Irwin Jacobs was. Nobody knew who Ivor Royston was,” said Mary Lindenstein Walshok, associate vice chancellor for public programs at UCSD and dean of the University Extension program. “These were smart guys who were professors starting what turned out to be game-changing technology companies.”
At work at Joseph Wang's lab at UCSD are (from left) Maria Zimmerman, Shankar Balasubramanian, Daniel Kagan and Dae Kang.