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Life-science push faces big hurdles

THE BALTIMORE SUN

A year after the business community dubbed Baltimore the city where science comes to life, most residents still haven't a clue as to what the life sciences are.

But state and city leaders say that by the end of the century every school child, taxi driver, plumber and pinstriped lawyer will come to see life sciences as the city's economic engine, chugging out $150 million in new taxes for Maryland and 60,000 new jobs by the end of the decade.

At the heart would be science-based businesses and institutions -- everything from the Maryland Science Center to hospitals such as Johns Hopkins to companies that make genetically engineered plants or food additives from algae. But printers, lawyers, architects, restaurateurs, retailers, hoteliers -- the list is long -- would find their economic livelihoods linked to its vitality.

Every single citizen should see that the life sciences are a different way of thinking for this region," said William L. Jews, president and chief executive of Dimensions Health Corp. and ++ head of the Greater Baltimore Committee's life-science initiative.

Business leaders acknowledge that their vision has not yet trickled into the community consciousness, but they say the committee's year-old initiative has already begun to provide a focus for educational institutions, legislators and state officials as they seek to replace the city's fading industrial image.

"How the city sees itself and how it is seen is a critical component in how it grows," said Tim Baker, a lawyer who works with biotechnology investors. "Right now it is not important that people on the street know about it, but that decision-makers do."

After a year of work, the Greater Baltimore Committee can't point to any new buildings, a change in the city schools or a major biotechnology company that has been wooed to Baltimore. But it has been moving to get the initiative off the ground. In the past year, the committee has:

* Hired former Baltimore Development Corp. President David Gillece to market the region to life-sciences businesses that might come to the city. A task force headed by Alex. Brown & Sons President Mayo Shattuck has raised $100,000 toward the effort and will develop a strategy.

* Started an in-depth survey of business and educational leaders on what types of workers biotechnology companies and medical institutions will need. The survey will help schools and colleges build better programs to train workers.

* Completed a report that will be released soon on how universities and businesses can work together better to get inventions and discoveries out of the laboratories and into business.

* Worked to bring black churches and the American Association for the Advancement of Science together to promote science in church education programs. The effort is aimed at including minorities in life-sciences jobs and education.

In addition, the head of the GBC's life-sciences initiative is chairman of a committee appointed by Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to consider whether to establish a life-sciences high school. A preliminary report is expected this month.

In the next few weeks, the GBC plans to issue a high-tecscorecard that assesses the strengths and weaknesses of the area's high-tech industry, including budding biotechnology businesses.

The GBC has had some failures along the way. It lobbied hard in the General Assembly for the merger of the the University of Maryland at Baltimore and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Melding those two would have instantly created a major research university with a strong life-sciences bent. The merger was blocked by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's.

And no progress has been made in evaluating Maryland's tax code to determine whether changes would encourage biotechnology growth.

"I think we feel like the first year has been some combination of getting the word out and planting seeds," said Thomas J. Chmura, GBC deputy director. "I don't think we have scratched the surface in dealing with the man on the street or the school children."

The failings of the Baltimore school system are at the top of the list of concerns. Company officials are already complaining that they can't find enough competent high school graduates to fuel a small work force.

"If the school system doesn't radically improve, the potential here gets greatly reduced," Mr. Chmura said.

Some venture capitalists and business leaders say the GBC just gave voice to a movement that was already under way and that no matter how effective its efforts, the GBC cannot control the course of economic development.

"The GBC thing is a nice promotion," said Charles Newhall, a venture capitalist with New Enterprise Associates. But "this is a 30-year program. There is no quick way to do it."

"Whether these people can make a difference I don't know," said Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation. "I think no one has the exclusive power."

Contributions from business and state and local governments will be needed, he said.

In fact, there have been a number of developments independent the GBC that should fuel the expansion of the life sciences in Maryland, which already has the third-largest concentration of biotechnology companies in the nation.

In the past year, millions of dollars for research and developmen flowed into biotechnology from public offerings and venture capitalists. An additional $15 million from state retirement funds was invested in a Maryland Venture Capital Trust. The money will be pooled with other venture-capital funds that provide seed money for tiny biotech and high-tech companies.

The Maryland General Assembly included $23 million in next year's capital budget to build the Christopher Columbus Marine Biotechnology Center in the Inner Harbor and the Maryland Bioprocessing Center, which is designed to help biotechnology companies move their products into the market, at the Johns Hopkins Bayview Campus in East Baltimore.

An additional $49 million was authorized for the health-science research facility at the University of Maryland at Baltimore and $275,000 for a life-sciences building at the New Community College of Baltimore.

Besides money, area community colleges have set up programs to train the work force that biotechnology companies say is desperately lacking.

And the Southeast Community Organization, a coalition of neighborhoods in Southeast Baltimore, has adopted the life sciences as a theme for improving schools and finding jobs. Ringed by medical institutions and biotechnology centers, these neighborhoods of steel and port workers see their children's future in math and science.

But major hurdles remain. Although the region is particularly rich in top-notch research facilities such as the National Institutes of Health, the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland, commercializing that research locally has been a major problem. The list of inventions and cutting-edge discoveries from Maryland laboratories is long, but often the inventions have been patented elsewhere.

Hopkins and the University of Maryland have added staff or created offices to help nurture the relationship between senior faculty and companies. But some venture capitalists say there needs to be a fundamental change in the culture of the institutions that makes it acceptable for researchers to think of .. commercializing their inventions.

The region's venture capitalists are well positioned to help those entrepreneurs gain acceptance and success. With $6 billion in the mid-Atlantic region, including $2.5 billion in the state, according to Mr. Newhall, they have the power to shape the future.

However, company officials say the venture capitalists are often too conservative, choosing to invest in the most well-established of the biotechnology companies rather than those in the early stage of development.

The turnaround will come, said Mr. Newhall and other venture capitalists, when enough companies have grown big enough to spin off new companies with managers capable of taking their newly hatched businesses from infancy to adulthood.

"As with everything, we wish that we were moving many timefaster," said Mark Wasserman, secretary of the state Department of Economic and Community Development. "We wish we could begin to point to a few private-sector successes in the Baltimore area."

He is encouraged by signs that the work may be about to pay off. For the first time this year, a number of small entrepreneurs have made inquiries about moving their companies to Baltimore, although none have yet decided to come.

"What we are learning is that the needs they have are a little different than the garden variety businesses we deal with," Mr. Wasserman said. "They are limited on the amount of hard capital but long on research success."

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