Biotech Gets Some Silicon Valley Shine at Illumina’s New Campus
Employees arriving at the Peninsula’s newest, shiniest corporate campus will find it equipped with all the creature comforts now expected in Silicon Valley. There are gaming consoles with stadium-level seating; a tricked-out gym where trainers both real and virtual will kick your butt into shape; well-sod grounds where you can walk off your local, vegan, carb-free lunch or work wirelessly in the warming rays of the California sun. But unlike at Apple’s Mothership and Google’s Googleplex and Facebook’s much-anticipated Zucktown, here you won’t find any hoodied coders who skipped college to make it big. What you will find is thousands of square feet of wet labs, hundreds of begoggled, begloved scientists, and rows and rows and rows of the world’s best DNA sequencing machines.
This is the new Bay Area home of Illumina, the biotech behemoth that has almost single-handedly driven forward the genetic revolution in science and medicine (through a combination of acquisitions and aggressive litigation). Illumina’s machines generate 90 percent of all the DNA sequence data in the world. They’re not the Google of genetic data, they’re the internet.
But like Google, and other members of the tech elite, Illumina is increasingly in a bind to hire top-tier talent. Last year the company added 800 people to its payroll, and on any given day it has about 300 more jobs it’s looking to fill. In the Bay Area, where biotech is booming and promising PhDs have their pick of first-class universities, competition is especially stiff. And Illumina at least, is hoping it can seduce recruits by taking a page from the Silicon Valley playbook.
“The whole concept of the space is designed around openness and collaboration,” says Illumina spokeswoman Tina Amirkiai, pointing out the many glass-walled break-out rooms and open office floor plan where even CEO Francis de Souza has a cubicle. “The first step to bringing in new talent is creating a destination where people actually want to work.”
Though headquartered in San Diego, Illumina has long had roots in the Bay Area. But its various business units have been spread around disparate dark office parks; a research and development center in Mission Bay, prenatal testing in Redwood City, and a software division in Santa Clara. Now they’re all moving onto one 20-acre campus in Foster City. All told, about 400 employees will arrive between now and June. But with three buildings and 360,000 square feet, Illumina anticipates it will one day house more like 1,200. Plus there’s the empty lot where it could add a fourth building when growth mandates more space.
Of course that will also mean adding more parking. Illumina’s Foster City campus, like most of its life sciencey neighbors—Gilead, Siemens, Philips Medical—isn’t in walking distance, well, to anything. So like the tech companies in whose footsteps it’s following, Illumina is exacerbating the already serious shortage of transportation and housing on the peninsula.
“Biotech firms here aren’t any different—they keep creating these isolated, automobile-dependent campuses that contribute to an already intractable problem,” says Allison Arieff, head of public engagement for the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association. “To see them just default to the traditional paradigm is disappointing.”
Illumina bills its new digs as a center for connectivity, collaboration, and innovation. As proof, it points to the lack of landlines and walls between workbenches. But Arieff says real innovation would look more like creating mixed-use spaces, where people could live. Or offering on-site childcare. Or having more flexible policies around remote work. “The shiny stuff will attract people, but it’s the more pragmatic things that retain them,” she says.”
Still, you have to attract them in the first place. Even entry level positions often require PhDs. And Illumina can have a hard time competing with academia on prestige; “senior staff scientist” doesn’t have the same ring to it as “Stanford professor of human genomics.” And six figures only goes so far in the Bay Area housing market. Since you can’t pay people an infinite amount of money, companies ratchet up the amenities race instead.
“There’s a greater expectation amongst the most desired workforces, and that’s where the context of the office becomes much more important,” says Louise Mozingo, a landscape architect at UC Berkeley and author of Pastoral Capitalism: A History of Suburban Corporate Landscapes. “You can’t just take them to a tilt-up warehouse, no matter how much you pay them.”
It’s not a strategy Silicon Valley invented, she points out. Bell Labs led the way in the 1940s, buying 800 acres in New Jersey and building cafeteria lounges and flexible lab space to encourage its scientists to cross-pollinate their way to disruption in the electronics industry. But it has become an effective recruitment tool for top tech firms who offer it in place of real solutions to the current housing crush. “Home life suck because you have to live with 10 roommates in a single-bathroom unit? Just spend more time here, where the gyms are open 24 hours and the avocados are always free.”
That might work for millennials building apps. But the strategy is as of yet largely untested for the Bay Area’s biotech workers, being older and more likely to have families. A foosball table is fun, but so is not having to fight hours of rush hour traffic to get your kid from daycare.