Legislators see technology transfer proposals


It's a pattern state officials say is all-too common: a discovery made in Maryland's vaunted research labs is taken out of state for production, generating jobs and riches somewhere else.

Saccharine, the artificial sweetener, was discovered more than a century ago at Johns Hopkins University. A key ingredient of the travel-sickness remedy Dramamine was also developed there. And the pain-reliever Bufferin was made possible by a development at the University of Maryland at Baltimore.

All of the products are, however, made out of state.

Experts say the problem is multi-faceted, involving everything from entrepreneurial culture to the availability of venture capital. But Gov. William Donald Schaefer believes it could be partly solved with several proposed "technology transfer" projects including a $22 million, bio-processing center and an $18 million information processing facility.

Although the first year's appropriations would only be a few million dollars for each project, they would represent a long-term commitment by the state to these new technologies.

Lawmakers in the House Appropriations Committee got their first good look at the plans at a special hearing yesterday in Annapolis that attracted some of the state's greatest scientific brain power, from at least one university president to internationally acclaimed researchers.

The Maryland Bioprocessing Facility, eyed for sites in Baltimore city or county, would consist of three research "suites" that could be leased to companies wanting to increase production of their bio-tech discoveries. A pharmaceutical maker, for example, could use the center to produce a new drug in quantities great enough to be used in federal testing.

The Information Technologies Center would probably be built in Montgomery County and utilize Bell Atlantic's massive, digital switching center being built in the state. Other firms could use the center to test their ideas for new products based on digital technology.

Backers of the projects say they would build on Maryland's existing strength in the futuristic communications and bio-tech industries. They would also give Maryland a foothold in the emerging technologies, with the potential for thousands of jobs.

"While our research is second to none, we are not doing as good a job moving the goods to market," said Walt Plosila, president of the Montgomery County High Technology Council Inc.

J. Randall Evans, the state's secretary of Economic and Employment Development, said the facilities are consistent with three industries the state is focusing on developing: manufacturing, bio-technology, and information technology.

"This sounds very exciting to me. But in our free market system, if a company can't raise the money for a service it's a signal that the service is not needed," said Del. Robert L. Flanagan, R-Howard.

Lawmakers also asked about guarantees that the firms using the facility would locate their businesses in Maryland.

"If you want us to be your banker, than we need some sort of guarantee," Flanagan said.

But planners of the facilities are reluctant to restrict the users, though they may give preference to Maryland-based companies in using the centers. The companies will, however, tend to locate here to take advantage of the state's trained workforce, its strong research base and other factors, Evans said.

Del. Howard P. Rawlings, D-City, vice chairman of the appropriations committee, said he supports the proposals and believes they will both be funded eventually. The bio-processing center stands the best chance this year, because it is a capital budget item and the capital budget is not under as much stress as the state's operating budget.

"We need to be making plans for the 21st century," Rawlings said.

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