Dr. Luis Diaz is an oncologist at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, a researcher with patented findings and the co-founder of a small, fast-expanding company.
"We've grown from no employees to one employee to four employees and now we have 12," said Diaz, chief medical officer of the Baltimore-based Personal Genome Diagnostics.
The Baltimore region is a top performer in research but is merely middling when it comes to patenting innovations, a critical next step in the progression Diaz made to job creation.
State and local leaders have been trying to spark major change for a while now. But a report released last week by a Washington think tank suggests that these efforts haven't taken hold yet.
The number of patents granted in the Baltimore region was basically flat over the past decade, while the nation as a whole saw a spike of 60 percent, according to the Brookings Institution. The region ranked 116th out of the nation's approximately 360 metro areas for patent applications between 2007 and 2011 on a per-capita basis.
"It's not patenting at the same level of intensity as many other metropolitan areas," said Jonathan Rothwell, co-author of the "Patenting Prosperity" study, a nationwide look at innovation that linked higher patent levels to lower unemployment and other economic positives.
Judy Britz, executive director of the Maryland Biotechnology Center, started by the state in 2009 to spur growth in the research-heavy industry, said patents aren't the sole measure of a region's success in innovation.
"At the end of the day, a patent is a document," she said. "What you need is an entire community and a culture and the investment wherewithal in order to take those ideas and turn them into products, and if you start looking at the workforce in the state … [you see] that the intellectual capital is here to be able to drive those inventions."
Companies don't always need patents, either. Some turn to copyrights and trademarks for protection.
But while patents can be counted up, it's much trickier to quantify success further along in the effort to turn ideas into products. And Britz is quick to note that patents are usually a necessity for biotech companies, which might need years — and a great deal of money — to turn breakthrough research into an approved drug.
Rothwell, a senior research associate at Brookings' Metropolitan Policy Program, thinks the Baltimore region's industry specialties help explain why patent growth has lagged the nation. The local economy is heavy on services — such as finance — that aren't research-and-development dynamos.
The region's main advantages on the innovation front are its academic powerhouses and federal labs. Four of the area's five biggest patent recipients in 2011 were either academic or military, Brookings found. Stanley Black & Decker — No. 1 on the list — was the lone company.
The Johns Hopkins University — No. 2 — has pulled in more R&D funding than any other U.S. academic institution for more than 30 years straight. Little wonder then that many of the state's efforts to translate innovation into jobs have focused on Hopkins and other large universities.
"We have historically been a research-focused region, not necessarily an innovation-focused region," said Rob Rosenbaum, executive director of the Maryland Technology Development Corp., the state's 15-year-old effort to spark growth in high-tech fields. "We have to shift this culture … because that drives job growth and tax base."
Among the new projects managed by the agency, known as TEDCO:
•The Maryland Innovation Initiative, launched last fall to spur more entrepreneurial activity at and collaboration among five universities, most in Baltimore. The state kicked in $5 million for proof-of-concept grants this fiscal year, with an additional $800,000 from the universities.
•A patent assistance program, newly restarted after years of lying dormant, that gives startup companies matching funds to help pay for patenting costs when they license technology from universities or federal labs in Maryland.
•A planned fund of $20 million to $50 million for investing in fledging companies using technology from universities in Maryland or nearby states, one of several new funds in the startup phase. Young companies have long complained about a lack of venture capital in the region.
The universities are putting more emphasis on entrepreneurship, too. Last year the University System of Maryland's Board of Regents — as part of an effort to improve "Maryland's competitiveness in the innovation economy" — changed the system's tenure and promotion policy so creating intellectual property is counted as a plus.
Hopkins and its Applied Physics Laboratory, meanwhile, applied for more than 600 patents in 2011 — topping all but two of the dozens of U.S. universities, university systems and research hospitals that participated in the Association of University Technology Managers' latest survey.