Botanical research firm plans to grow in Baltimore

A small firm that wants to make dietary supplements and pharmaceuticals derived from plants is relocating to Baltimore, and has plans to eventually hire 200 scientists and analysts as well as growers in office and lab space.

Vitreon America Inc. initially will move eight of its 23 employees from Northern Virginia and elsewhere to Baltimore, aiming to be closer to the region's medical and scientific research institutions, said J. Randall Hoggle, Vitreon's CEO.

The privately held firm will research uses for plants and partner with drug companies, nutritional supplement makers and medical device firms to find uses for them. The company aims to grow to 200 employees over five years and add a 200,000-square-foot laboratory.

J. Randall Hoggle, Vitreon's CEO and an investor, said all drugs were made from plants until the 1950s when synthetic materials became standard.

"We're going back to the future," Hoggle said. "There is overwhelming interest and we've seen it already on the nutritional supplement side. Everyone wants natural products now."

The market for "botanical" drugs is about to explode, according to a 2015 report from BCC Research, a scientific industry forecasting firm. The market is expected to soar to $1.8 billion in 2020 from just $35.9 million in 2015, BCC Research estimated.

Many companies are entering the emerging market for botanicals because of public interest in "naturally-derived compounds" and technology continues to improve, the firm said its report.

Hoggle said Vitreon is about 18 months old and in the past six months has signed on seven clients, who are working on 100 projects. He declined to name the companies, though he said some were household names.

He said some nutritional supplement products could be available by the end of the year, but getting approval for pharmaceuticals will take much longer. The FDA process of establishing safety and effectiveness of any drug generally takes a decade or more.

Hoggle also declined to discuss how much 10 stockholders have invested in the company, though he said Vitreon is already profitable.

Much of the work Vitreon is involved with relies on a database created by a well known Howard County botanist, James Duke, parts of which are available on the U.S. Department of Agriculture website. Hoggle said Duke is working with Vitreon to expand the database. Duke could not be reached for comment.

State economic development officials are working with the company on an incentive package, which could include a loan and tax credits for creating jobs. Vitreon said about 30 to 35 positions will be for scientists, but the company hopes to find and train others for entry-level positions growing plants.

For now, Hoggle said the company is subletting space in a building on Wicomico Street in Washington Village from Baltimore BioWorks, a biotech vocation training firm, which could help find and train workers for Vitreon.

According to the announcement by the state Department of Commerce, Vitreon expects to invest $6.5 million to establish its headquarters, laboratory, research center and grow zones in about 200,000 square feet of space.

"Maryland has an outstanding reputation as a place of groundbreaking medical breakthroughs and discoveries, and the innovative research that Vitreon is doing to develop new plant-based medicines will be a great addition to our community," said Mike Gill, Maryland Secretary of Commerce. "We look forward to continuing to work with Vitreon and connecting them to potential partners to ensure their success in Maryland."

William H. Cole, president and CEO of the Baltimore Development Corp., said there are potential partners for Vitreon with 13 area colleges and universities and two established bioparks.

Already, Vitreon plans to work with Morgan State University, which maintains a greenhouse on campus and has equipment to identify novel plant-based compounds.

"Faculty and student collaborations with Vitreon scientists will not only expand MSU's research capacity and skills inventory, but also foster cultivation of a unique, multi-disciplinary training environment that will support the state of Maryland in realizing its R&D potential," said Joseph Whitaker, a Morgan State biology professor who is the lead professor on the partnership with Vitreon, in a statement.

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

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