High-profile politicians often cause a stir when they make appearances at events. But the anticipation ahead of the arrival of the keynote speaker at the Biotechnology Industry Organization’s international convention in San Diego in June was on another plane of politico star-spotting. The line to gain admittance snaked for miles around the sprawling convention centre with some 2000 scientists, business executives and others waiting eagerly to hear a brief speech by the governor of a US state.

But of course this is not just any governor. And this is not just any state. Arnold Schwarzenegger is one of the world’s best-known celebrities, and California is the world’s biggest biotechnology star, eclipsing every other established and aspiring hub on the planet.

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Biotech goes big

More than 200,000 Californians work in the biotech industry and nearly 3000 Californian companies are engaged in biomedical technology, the leading state in the US with annual revenues of $73bn. California’s share of biotechnology venture capital accounts for nearly half of all biotechnology venture capital investment in the US; total VC invested in Californian life sciences companies was $4.3bn last year.

Mr Schwarzenegger has lent his star power and political muscle towards strengthening the state’s already rock-solid reputation as a hotbed for innovative research and technology. In 2004 he got voter approval for devoting $3bn to stem cell research and creating the California Institute of Regenerative Medicine (CIRM), which to date has approved 168 research grants totalling more than $530m, making it the largest source of funding for embryonic and pluripotent stem cell research anywhere.

California remains a world-beater in biotech for sure but with business locations in most parts of the world falling over themselves to attract life sciences investment and build up their own hubs, the playing field is dotted with competitors (some admittedly more plausible than others).

But the former champion bodybuilder thrives on the idea of competition; so does California, he says. The governor believes competition boosts performance across the board.

“We don’t see competition as a threat, we see it as a big plus,” he told fDi in an interview following his San Diego speech. “I always believe that the more competition there is around the world, the better we will perform and the better other people will perform.”

He points to the stem cell funding as a prime example of the upside of competitive pressures: “We were the first ones out there with our $3bn investment in stem cell research and making that commitment – that made every other state in the US and other countries say ‘wait a minute’. So now they go and try and get the funding for stem cell research and hopefully someone will say ‘we got $5bn, we beat California’.

“And that is now $5bn better for the world because what we are doing is not just for our state, because the creation of medicine and finding cures is not just for Californians – it is for the world. Even though as an industry we would like to protect ourselves and open labs in California because it is good for the economy, the real reason why we are doing all this is to save people’s lives.”

CURRICULUM VITAE

ARNOLD SCHWARZENEGGER

2003State of California

Governor

1990President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports

Chairman

1988

Accompanies US president-to-be George Bush at a campaign rally