GBC's vision for region: mining gold from the life sciences


The Baltimore region's life sciences institutions and businesses are an economic gold mine.

That's what the Greater Baltimore Committee keeps saying as it promotes its vision of a local economy centered on the life sciences.

That vision calls for dramatic growth among the area's latticework of companies, universities and hospitals.

Yet it's clear that private companies need to gather strength before the vision comes to pass. The city's most prominent biotech companies, such as Nova Pharmaceutical Corp. and PharmaKinetics Laboratories Inc., are still struggling to post profits.

At present, Baltimore's infrastructure is heavily weighted toward non-profit organizations such as hospitals, universities and government agencies. And that's where the area's strength lies.

In unveiling its vision two weeks ago, the GBC noted that 16 of the 50 largest private- and public-sector employers in the Baltimore area are in the life sciences field. Of those 16, a dozen are hospitals. Johns Hopkins University and Hospital and the University of Maryland at Baltimore were also included in that elite group.

That's not particularly impressive at first glance: Plenty of metropolitan areas have concentrations of hospitals and universities.

"Obviously every big city's got universities -- every big city does not have the biggest research university in America, which is Johns Hopkins," said Tom Chmura, the GBC's deputy director. "Obviously, every big city has a collection of hospitals, but you don't have the kind of world-class specialties that you have at Hopkins and, to a lesser degree, UMAB."

The GBC points out that Johns Hopkins University and Hospital is the state's largest private employer, with nearly 28,000 workers. Still, all of Hopkins' employees aren't in the life sciences arena.

University research is important to a life sciences economy because it "will greatly aid incoming companies that want to set up or establish research centers here," said Dr. Phil

ip Chen, associate director of in-house research for the National Institutes of Health. The presence of Hopkins and the University of Maryland makes for an "educational and research environment that new companies, as well as established companies, should find attractive."

Johns Hopkins University was the recipient of more federal research dollars last year -- roughly $650 million -- than any other university in the country. About $140 million of that went to biomedical research, a Hopkins spokeswoman said.

UMAB received about $41 million in federal funds for biomedical work, while UMBC got just below $10 million.

NIH and the Food and Drug Administration also are important components of the region's life sciences infrastructure. "We have the FDA here in our [region], and we certainly should take advantage of that fact," said Hans Mueller, chief executive officer of Nova Pharmaceutical. Makers of food additives and drugs routinely send representatives to the FDA, Mr. Mueller said.

"The fact is that people do go to the FDA very frequently, and if it's right in your backyard, it ought to be easier," he said. "To some extent, to be able to have frequent -- of course appropriate -- contact with the FDA is good. It's a people business like anything else," Mr. Mueller said.

Being close to NIH, which is the world's largest biomedical research organization, brings more tangible rewards.

For one thing, it has about 4,800 doctoral level researchers who often participate in research projects with their private-sector counterparts.

"We support about a third or so of all the medical research in this country, so we play, you might say, the seminal role in biomedical research," said Dr. Chen of the NIH. "We provide grants and fellowships to provide research and training in institutions on the outside.

"This, I would say, creates a fantastic infrastructure upon which life sciences businesses can build," Dr. Chen said. "First, there are the spinoff companies that already exist because NIH is already here. In addition, there are new companies, primarily biotech companies, that are being attracted to this region."

NIH, which has 12 of its 13 institutes in Maryland, provided about 14,600 jobs in the state last year. It also doled out $188.5 million in Maryland for research projects.

Another major piece of the life sciences infrastructure -- biotech companies -- is scattered throughout the Baltimore-Washington corridor. Members of the group, 100 strong, tend to be young, small and unprofitable because most of their money goes toward research and development.

These companies can make quite an economic ripple -- once they get going. But that could take years.

"Development cycles for biomedical products tend to be longer than most other high-tech industries," said Dr. Mueller of Nova, a nine-year-old company that has yet to turn a profit. "So, that fact prevents the quick impact that this can make economically, in terms of production. On the other side, if you do succeed, the overall economic impact is much larger in terms of the growth and economic potential."

Only California and Massachusetts have more biotech companies than Maryland, Mr. Mueller said. "Many of these are really small organizations that are more in the research service business than in the business of producing specialty products," he said.

PharmaKinetics does testing and gains FDA approval for the products made by generic drug manufacturers. Once profitable, the firm filed for bankruptcy last year. It's financial problems stem from a drug-switching scandal that caused PharmaKinetics to lose its biggest client and saw PharmaKinetics plead guilty recently to a charge that it obstructed an FDA investigation. Despite PharmaKinetics' current difficulties, the quality of its scientific work has never been questioned.

The final piece to the medical infrastructure is Waverly Inc., a Baltimore-based firm that publishes medical books and periodicals. President and Chief Executive Officer Edward B. Hutton Jr. expects 1991 revenues to approach $150 million -- 95 percent of it generated by medical materials.

Waverly employs 650 people in Baltimore and 300 in Easton.

Only time will tell if the region's discrete biomedical and biotechnical entities will serve as a launching pad for a life sciences economy.

But Dr. Santo L. Grillo feels optimistic that it will. Dr. Grillo is president and chief executive officer of Biotrax Inc., a small biotech start-up firm located in UMBC's Technology Enterprise Center.

"Given the strength of the life science research base in the area, it's probably a reasonable initiative," he said. "There's a phenomenal amount of basic research done in that area."

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