Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Sunset, And A New Dawn

Sunset, And A New Dawn
By Richard Rico

YOU REMEMBER Pete Wilson. He's the Gov'nor who about 10 years ago beamed as he held aloft a Reporter banner headline: "GENENTECH YES!" It was about political bragging rights, a photo op that crowed the biotech giant's decision to make Vacaville the home of its new manufacturing plant.

Standing somewhere behind Pete was a smiling Frank Jackson. Gov. Wilson did a few other things too, but I can't remember.

Frank Jackson did things we can't forget: He's the Genentech genius who helped boil down possible sites-Puerto Rico, Ireland, West Sacramento, to name a few-to Vacaville. As plant general manager, he led the team that put breakthrough Genentech cancer fighters such as Herceptin, Rituxan and Avastin into production, thus into the lives of sufferers. When Gov. Arnold swaggered onto the stage of a tent theater at the local plant in 2004 to celebrate Genentech's $600 million expansion, he declared it a victory for California. In the background-again-was a smiling Frank Jackson. The Guv is a work in progress; virtually all of Jackson's Genentech career over 26 years has been a work of progress. For the Vaca plant's 13-year life, he has been here. His staff grew to nearly 1,200, in a facility valued at more than $1.5 billion. A good run. For Jackson, it ended July 11. Retirement beckoned, and the timing was right. With little fanfare (unless El Gubernator shows up to say, "Hasta la vista, baby") Jackson's life of bioscience will be redirected-to the science of fly-fishing, for instance. Or to the science of marketing his wife Susan Routledge's exquisite watercolor artwork that she creates in the dreamy environs of their new coastal home.

IN LOWER-tech times, Vacaville was a company town. Every day, white-uniformed workers trudged to "the mines"-Basic Vegetable Co. Its mission wasn't complicated: Fresh onions and garlic went in one end, a panoply of sliced, diced and dehydrated onions and garlic came out the other. What comes out the end of G'tech Vaca is just a tad complicated: The result of research at G'tech S. F. to produce pharmaceutical proteins from mammalian cells; starving cancer cells of nutrients they need to grow, thus helping to fight mankind's crappiest diseases. That last part is about all I can understand. Biotech is making Vaca a new-age company town. Its discoveries are in-your-face-counterpoints to contentions that the last thing the world needs now is more chemicals. Provable exception: When they are needed to sustain life, and they work.

"IT'S A huge science," Jackson understates. He was recruited by Genentech 26 years ago from biotech work in England. In time, he headed up the plant site search, then led the design and build team to finish the plant in 1998. Its startup was "one of the great moments of my life," he reflects. But he credits everyone else on his team for his successes, including Vacaville City Hall. "Very cooperative," are the kinds of words city councilpersons paste in scrapbooks. Genentech returned the favor. Under Jackson's watch, it favored NorthBay Hospital's new ER with $500,000. It funded $100,000 to Mission Solano, and a like amount to the Boys and Girls Club. Plus, police, fire and Opportunity House, not to mention internships for UC Davis and Solano College students, and training locals (perhaps with garlic and onion pasts) to become bioworkers. Frank Jackson's career may be sunsetting, but G'tech's dawn is barely breaking.

THERE'S A kind of parallel at Kidwell Rd. and I-80 with Rich Collins, the man who grows endive in Rio Vista. We covered him two weeks ago. What we didn't cover is his vision for creating an agri-tourism Yolo-Solano destination that would showcase the health and taste benefits of pure food: Produce, milk, cheese wine, meat, all of it in a "sustainable ag" environment. It'll be called Bridgeway Farms. Pull into a $5 million "new-age Nut Tree," whatever that is. Collins has the land, the passion, the supporters. He and wife, Shelly, are "resolute in our conviction that this is the right project in the right place, at the right time."

Picture Gov. Arnold one day holding up a banner: "BRIDGEWAY FARMS YES!"

A Collins-Jackson organic food-biotech career connection may be a stretch, but it's there: Lives dedicated to improving the human condition are lives nobly spent.

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