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Marine research center is a gamble


It will be big, glitzy and expensive, the biggest monument yet to Maryland's dream of becoming a national biotechnology center.

It also is a huge gamble.

As construction starts this morning in the Inner Harbor, skeptics of the $160 million Christopher Columbus Center for Marine Research and Exploration are questioning whether it will ever be the economic powerhouse its promoters promised.

While few dispute its value as a research institution, the center also is supposed to create thousands of new jobs and dozens of

new companies, help cure the ills of the Chesa

peake Bay, launch a revolution in aquaculture and discover new drugs.

The Christopher Columbus Center includes something for everyone. Its exhibit area will try to demystify the world of genes and molecular biology. Its educational training center will teach both industry scientists and Baltimore's schoolchildren the latest biotech research.

And its $47 million research facility will have the best and the brightest scientists trying to produce a hormone that will make striped bass spawn on cue, a vaccine for oysters and new drugs derived from algae.

Baltimore's gift to the center is some of its best land -- about $34 million worth -- on Piers 5 and 6. Federal taxpayers have kicked in $44 million so far and will be asked to give more. The state is expected to add another $18 million as well as continuing support for the center.

"This is something the state has to do to be a leader in biotech in the future. We had to do it . . . We couldn't loose the opportunity," said Rita Colwell, director of the Maryland Biotechnology Institute, which will oversee the research end of the center, and one of the brains behind the Columbus Center.

"This is a highly intelligent roll of the dice," said Stanley Heuisler, the center's new chief executive.

But some believe the non-profit center shouldn't promise more than it can deliver.

"Marine biotechnology is clearly a market niche worth pursuing," said Walter Plosila, an expert on state technology programs nationwide. "We must be sure we do not raise expectations that are greater than we can deliver in the short term or [than] what we can realistically provide with one center."

"It is yet another careless use of money," said a scientist intimately involved in the life sciences initiative in Maryland, who asked not to be identified. "However, we have the money now and we have the opportunity to do something to get the life sciences initiative off the ground."

Officials of the Christopher Columbus Center often cite statisticspredicting that research from the center will lead to 250 new companies in Maryland in the next decade. That would be two companies a month, a rate of business formation at least 10 times that of other state biotechnology centers in the nation and greater than major research institutions like Johns Hopkins University or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Take, for instance, the Massachusetts Biotech Research Institute in Worcester, whose sole mission is to found companies based on research at other institutions. It has founded 14 new companies in the past five years.

In comparison, the Maryland Biotechnology Institute's 6-year-old Center of Marine Biotechnology, which will become the Columbus Center's research arm when it moves in in 1994, claims to have spawned six companies.

Of those, two were existing companies that licensed technology from COMB. The four true spinoffs -- Aquagene, AquaPharm, AquaHealth and Adheron -- employ fewer than 10 people collectively.

The most successful is Adheron, a College Park company with four employees that is out searching for capital and believes it can find commercial applications for a glue made by oyster bacterium.

Dr. Colwell defends the center's record, saying it has a good record on the number of new inventions and patents it has produced in the past several years. That rate is higher than Johns Hopkins, for instance.

And legislators say the center is an important investment if the life sciences are to become the economic future for Maryland. "We aren't going to do heavy manufacturing," said Sen. Barbara Hoffman, D-Baltimore County. "It creates a nexus for activity that is extremely important . . . I think the effect on the economy should far outweigh whatever dollars the university spends."

Dr. Colwell has built up the Center of Marine Biotechnology, one of six research institutes that make up the Maryland Biotechnology Institute, through political acumen and dogged perseverance. The institutes are part of the University of Maryland system and are funded by the state, although they pull in a substantial portion of their budget through outside grants.

When COMB moves into the Columbus Center, it will have 160,000 square feet of laboratory space, more than any other state biotechnology center in the nation.

Over the next five years Dr. Colwell plans to at least double the number of top scientists to 30. There is laboratory space for 52 in all. She said she doesn't know how much her operating budget will be when the center opens in two years, although she projects she will need about $3 million to $4 million a year from the legislature by the end of the decade.

She says that budget could be tripled by research grants the professors will bring in.

Attracting faculty to the center will not be difficult, Dr. Colwell said, because the center will have good facilities.

But recruiting top academic researchers can be costly.

For instance, David Blake, a Johns Hopkins senior associate dean, estimates it costs the medical school anywhere from $250,000 to $500,000 in salary, equipment and technicians' salary to attract a good professor to the school.

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