Torrey Pines Mesa A Hotbed Of Innovation

Torrey Pines Mesa north of downtown San Diego is named for one of the rarest species of pine, a tree found only there and on one of the Channel Islands.

Something equally rare has grown on the mesa in the past few decades, an enormous cluster of research institutions and a hotbed of innovation and entrepreneurship.

During World War II, Torrey Pines Mesa was home to Camp Callan, where Army artillery gunners lobbed shells into the Pacific Ocean as part of their training against a possible Japanese invasion.

After the war, Camp Callan was demolished and the city faced a decision about what to do with the property, a beautiful, largely undeveloped, miles-long plateau north of downtown San Diego with gorgeous views of the ocean. It would have been a prime location for housing and recreation, but civic leaders had something more in mind.

San Diego wanted to capitalize on the military spending that had jumpstarted the city’s growth. Wary of Los Angeles’ post-war industrial sprawl, civic leaders were interested in clean industry and R&D. The mesa would be San Diego’s means to attract business. To forestall commercial development, the city zoned Torrey Pines exclusively for research.

General Atomic, a newly formed division of military contractor General Dynamics, was the kind of business the city wanted to attract. San Diego residents in 1955 approved a referendum to donate 300 acres if the company built on the mesa. General Atomic went on to foster more than 60 spinoffs, including SAIC and Titan Corp.. Similarly, the city in 1960 donated land for the new home of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies.

General Atomic and the Scripps Institution of Oceanography were instrumental in persuading the state to build a new university – University of California, San Diego – on the mesa. Research institution followed research institution and today Torrey Pines Mesa is home to 80 life sciences institutions.        

 The ocean views and near-perfect climate have helped institutions recruit countless scientists and researchers from the East Coast and Midwest. Members of the community also say there is something in the air that dissolves institutional rivalry and promotes collaboration.

“I don’t think you can find another example anywhere in the country, if anywhere in the world, of that level of cooperation,” said Joe Panetta, head of BIOCOM, a life sciences business association.

Duane Roth, CEO of CONNECT, an organization which promotes entrepreneurship, attributes the collegiality, at least in part, to physical proximity. Institutions on Torrey Pines border each other and much of the property is laced by biking and walking paths.

“Everybody is talking to everybody. Everybody is helping everybody and you never even talk about the boundaries anymore. That got broken down over time and people started saying, ‘What’s the big deal? Why can’t faculty help start companies and buy companies and work together?’,” Roth said.

Collaboration on the mesa

Compared to some research clusters, the institutions in San Diego and on Torrey Pines Mesa are exceptionally collaborative. Here are a few examples of that:

West Health Institute -- Studies how to control healthcare costs through innovation. Affiliated with Scripps Health, UC San Diego, San Diego State University, Scripps Translational Science Institutes, Carlos Slim Health Institute.

Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine -- State-funded stem cell research center. A joint operation of UC San Diego, Salk Institute for Biological Studies, Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, La Jolla Institute for Allergy & Immunology, Scripps Research Institute and other Torrey Pines organizations.

San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology – Researching algae as food and fuel. Partnership between UC San Diego, Scripps Research Institute, SDSU and private industry.

UC San Diego Clinical and Translational Research Institute – Translates scientific discoveries into improved health. Involvement from UC San Diego, SDSU, Salk Institute, Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, J. Craig Venter Institute, La Jolla Institute for Allergy & Immunology, various hospital systems and trade organizations.

Torrey Pines Mesa timeline

1963 – Salk Institute for Biological Studies opens.

1964 -- University of California, San Diego opens.

1975 – Scripps Research Institute opens.  

1976 – La Jolla Cancer Research Foundation, now Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, opens.

1985 – San Diego Supercomputer Center founded.

1996 – La Jolla Institute for Allergy & Immunology opens.

1999 – Genomics Institute of Novartis Research Foundation founded.

2006 – J. Craig Venter Institute formed. Scripps Translational Science Institute and Scripps Genomic Medicine founded.

2009 – Lilly Biotechnology Center opens.

2011 – Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine opens.

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