Biotech’s bonanza

Pub date February 9, 2010
SectionGreen City

By Adam Lesser

It’s difficult to measure the value a biotechnology company receives from locating in San Francisco. Most measures are qualitative: scientists talk about synergy with other biotech companies in the area, the intellectual community that thrives at the University of California-San Francisco, and support offered at the California Institute for Quantitative Biosciences (QB3).

But the quantitative costs are easier to calculate, beginning with rents that often are two to three times higher than in the East Bay or South Bay. Add San Francisco’s 1.5 percent payroll tax, and companies can begin to attach a dollar figure to the premium of being in San Francisco.

To incentivize biotech companies to locate in San Francisco, Mayor Gavin Newsom is asking the Board of Supervisors to extend the six-year-old Biotech Payroll Tax Exemption. The exemption allows any new biotech company to get a full 7.5 years without paying local business taxes as long as it files for the exemption by Dec. 31, 2014.

At a time when San Francisco city officials are struggling to close a budget deficit of more than $500 million — for which Newsom hasn’t offered any significant revenue proposals to help bridge the gap — some are questioning why the city should continue giving millions of dollars in tax breaks to the thriving biotech industry.

The core question of whether the payroll tax credit has worked in bringing more biotech companies to San Francisco is complex. While Newsom boasted of attracting 54 new biotech companies in the last five years during his Jan. 13 State of the City address, analysis of the credit by Ted Egan, the city’s chief economist, indicated that only eight companies had applied for the credit by the end of 2008.

The thriving research environment at UCSF-Mission Bay and the establishment of the state taxpayer-funded California Institute for Regenerative Medicine have played significant roles in creating a favorable environment for young biotech companies. The last five years also have seen broad growth in biotech as scientific discoveries have accelerated. Would biotech companies have come to San Francisco regardless of the payroll tax exemption?

The city’s Office of Economic Analysis looked at the question of how effective the payroll tax exclusion actually has been in spurring biotech growth. Because the size of the incentive — an exemption from paying a 1.5 percent tax on its total payroll — is relatively small, Egan felt that there could not be a conclusive link between the exemption and biotech growth. But he did feel there was some benefit, writing in his analysis that “in fact, the primary worth of the incentive may lie in its marketing value and how it signals to the industry that San Francisco is a credible location for biotechnology.”

Between 2004 and 2008, the biotech tax credit cost the city $1.2 million. If costs stay on pace with 2008, the existing Biotechnology Tax Exclusion will cost at least an additional $2 million. There are no cost estimates yet on extending the credit to give all biotech companies the full 7.5 years of payroll tax exclusion.

The extension faces opposition. Sup. John Avalos, chair of the Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee, has expressed concern about the effectiveness of tax credits.

“I’m not sure the city is going to be able to show a direct connection between taxes and the growth of the biotech industry. The verdict is still out for me,” Avalos told the Guardian. “We’ve created the whole infrastructure for the industry around Mission Bay. That could have a lot to do with companies coming to San Francisco.” The city donated a portion of the land the UCSF-Mission Bay campus was built on.

Allopartis Biotechnologies is a small biotech startup in QB3 at UCSF-Mission Bay that has received venture capital funding. It saved $3,670 in 2009 by qualifying for the payroll exclusion. Allopartis has six employees and focuses on developing technologies to convert biomass into sustainable fuels.

“You pay a premium to be in the city, and it’s worth it,” said Robert Blazej, cofounder of Allopartis. “We’d like to stay close to this nexus of innovation and collaborators. But it’s going to be challenging with the cost of square footage.”

Interviews with other growing San Francisco businesses showed that their biggest concern was the cost and availability of commercial real estate. Zynga, a social gaming company in Potrero Hill, plans to add 800 jobs over the next two years. Newsom has asked for an additional waiver on payroll taxes for all new hires over the next two years, regardless of industry.

“We considered moving out of San Francisco for a couple reasons. One is the availability of commercial real estate. The other is the payroll tax,” said Chief Financial Officer Mark Vranesh. “The large blocks of space we would be looking for are hard to find.”

But as the city tries to plug gaps in dwindling city services, concerns are mounting about how much the city can give away to companies under the premise that tax credits create new jobs. In the debate about the biotech tax credit, objections have been raised about the fundamental fairness of giving a tax break to one industry while others still pay their share. Similar next generation industries with large up-front research and development costs such as solar energy or fiberoptic Internet do not receive payroll tax waivers.

Economists such as the Tax Foundation’s Patrick Fleenor are quick to point out that there are no political advantages to taxing everyone equally. “The problem is a political one. If you tax everyone the same, there aren’t politicians creating little fiefdoms. There aren’t ribbon-cutting ceremonies,” he said.

Avalos has equated judging the effectiveness of tax credits at creating jobs to looking into a crystal ball. But the price tag of each tax credit is borne in the present as the city contemplates laying off hundreds of city workers.

Adding to the political infighting have been public complaints by Sup. Michela Alioto-Pier that Newsom is trying to take credit for the biotech payroll exclusion, which she originally proposed and helped legislate in 2004. She requested an extension for the biotech tax credit in November. Her office has defended the bill. “We’re creating a hub so that other biotech companies can come to San Francisco,” said Bill Barnes, Alioto-Pier’s legislative aide. “When she was courting biotech, she was hearing that the payroll tax was an impediment.”

But other cities charge local business taxes comparable to San Francisco’s payroll tax. And if there was ever an industry that has been heaped with support from the public sector, it is biotech.

Proposition 71 passed with 59 percent voter support in 2004 and established the CIRM, which provides grants and loans for stem cell research. Stem cell research is an area within biotech that has seen significant political support, particularly since the time of the Bush administration, when federal funding for embryonic stem cell research was heavily restricted.

But appearing to be doing something about the economy remains politically important, even if the actual benefits are somewhat dubious.

“It’s a big political game that the mayor is playing. He wants to paint progressives as anti-jobs, which is ridiculous, and paint himself as the mayor for jobs,” Avalos told us. “We would be cannibalizing government services for the private sector.”

Newsom has been vague about whether he accepts that tradeoff or even understands its implications to city coffers and the local economy. Newsom Press Secretary Tony Winnicker recently told us, “He thinks it’s good policy to spur private sector job growth.”

Later, he added: “While not every company has taken advantage of it, we feel extending it sends the right message,”