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While there has been a softening in the demand for for-lease biotechnology space in San Diego, you wouldn’t know it by the huge appetite publicly-traded real estate investment trusts have had for life science buildings here lately.

The status of the biotech industry, the life science leasing situation and the redevelopment of existing space were among the topics at a Commercial Real Estate Women (CREW)-sponsored session at the Sheraton La Jolla Thursday.

Bret Gossett, Pasadena-based Alexandria Real Estate Equities vice president, said while there were only $24 million in biotech property acquisitions in the San Diego region in 2009 and $43 million in 2008, investors (primarily REITs) had enough confidence in the biotech buildings here to purchase $586 million worth of them last year.

That figure was even better than 2007 when the total reached a high-water mark of $564 million.

Alexandria paid $128 million late last year for the 360,000-square-foot Nobel Research Center. Then Illumina (Nasdaq: ILMN) paid $335 million to lease the space.

“And the general consolidation (of companies) has been nothing short of phenomenal,” Gossett said.

These transactions have included Novartis’ acquisition of Genoptix for $470 million in January, Aventis’ purchase of Targegen for $560 million last June and San Diego-based Illumina’s $105 million acquisition of Helixis in April 2010.

Recent major leases in the San Diego area from 2010 to the present have included Illumina (which has taken a total of 470,000 square feet), Advanced BioHealing for 110,000 square feet and a renewal for Althea Technologies of 105,000 square feet.

Gossett said the total life science ownership of properties in the central San Diego area has grown from about 10.13 million square feet as of the end of 2005 to 13.07 million as of the end of 2010.

He said the biotech vacancy is running at about 15 percent, but that much of this space could be absorbed fairly quickly once the economy improves.

Greg Bisconti, Cushman & Wakefield Global Life Sciences Group senior director, said by his account there is about 1.8 million square feet of available space out of a 13.97 million-square-foot market for a 13 percent vacancy rate.

The University Towne Centre market, with a 21 percent rate, has the highest vacancy figure in the central biotech markets that include Torrey Pines, Sorrento Valley and Sorrento Mesa.

Gossett’s own company, Alexandria leads the way with 2.46 million square feet of biotech ownership here. That represents a 19 percent share of the central San Diego biotech market.

BioMed Realty Trust is second with 1.78 million square feet and a 13 percent market share, and HCP Life Sciences Estates with 1.41 million square feet and an 11 percent market share.

The total of those three large REITs of 43 percent of the market.

Not all has been good.

Bisconti and Gossett were quick to point out that a lot of companies large and small have continued to downsize or have closed down while waiting for additional financing to take themselves to the next level.

Gossett said he knew of one company that anticipated that the funding they received would last five years. It was spent in six months.

“It’s amazing how quickly companies can burn through cash,” Gossett said.

Jim Ferguson, principal at Ferguson Pape Baldwin Architects, suggested that given that the time of conception to marketing of a drug may be a decade, it often becomes a matter of survival of the fittest.

“A lot of companies struggle because they don’t know the costs of clinical trials,” Ferguson said.

Being big and well known also offers no guarantees.

“Big Pharma (large pharmaceutical companies) has had some massive layoffs,” Bisconti said.

Expectations may have had to be downsized as well.

Hope Spadora, Life Technologies Global Facilities and Real Estate vice president, said when the Obama stimulus package was made public, it appeared her firm might obtain as much as $100 million. It was $7 million by the time she saw the money.

Life Technologies doesn’t appear to have been hurt much.  The firm, which now has its own general contracting division, has been acquiring life science companies at the rate of 13 during the past 18 months.

Once the market does turn around, the consensus was there won’t be a lot of land for new development. That means biotech buildings will need to be renovated to remain current.

“There’s going to be much more emphasis on flexibility of space,” said Bisconti, “and that will take a lot of innovation.”

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