With its eyes more on a dream than a reality, the Greater Baltimore Committee will kick off a monthlong celebration of high technology in Baltimore today.
Throughout October, the GBC's Technology Council will be coordinating a series of events spotlighting Baltimore's aspiration to join the elite group of metropolitan areas that are on the cutting edge of science, engineering and technology.
Starting with a dinner that is expected to draw much of the region's business and political elite to the Hyatt Regency tonight, the GBC's fourth annual Technology Month will attempt to focus Baltimoreans' attention on high-tech issues through seminars, exhibits, workshops and outreach programs nearly every weekday this month.
The emphasis will be on success stories, or as a GBC press release puts it, the "substantial evidence to indicate that this market is keeping pace with the best predictions of science fiction."
But if high technology is the Holy Grail of economic development, there is considerable reason to think Baltimore is not the place to look for it -- at least not yet. Economic development experts give the GBC high marks for consciousness-raising among local leaders, but they say increased awareness has yet to show much payoff in terms of jobs.
"The GBC's been doing a great job with the perception issues. However, it must be said that outside Baltimore no one yet perceives us as a technology city," said Michael A. Conte, director of the regional economic studies program at the University of Baltimore's Merrick School of Business.
And it's not a misperception, he said. His blunt assessment: "We're not a technology town."
J. C. Weiss, chairman of the Technology Council, isn't equating Baltimore with the Silicon Valley or Boston's Route 128 corridor, but doesn't think the present is all that bad. While he admits Baltimore's business leaders were slow in jumping on the technology bandwagon, he said he's seen a lot of progress in the four years he's been involved in the GBC's high-tech efforts. The payoff will just take time, he said.
"Silicon Valley is a 40-year phenomenon. Route 128 is a 20-year phenomenon," he said.
Mr. Weiss cited expansion at such firms as Becton-Dickinson, Martek, Crop Genetics and Chesapeake Biological Laboratories. He said major law and accounting firms have created a professional infrastructure by setting up technology-related specialties. And he credited the region's universities with changing their rules to speed the progress of technology from the laboratory to the marketplace.
Still, as this year's Technology Month begins, high-tech Baltimore still is feeling the sting of a number of highly visible reverses.
Its most promising biotech company, Nova Pharmaceutical Co., was acquired by Scios Inc. of Mountain View, Calif., last year. In July, a second company that was a candidate to run the planned Maryland Bioprocessing Center backed out, sending the state back to the drawing board yet again in its efforts to get the Baltimore facility up and running.
And just last week, Martin Marietta Corp.'s decision to close its Glen Burnie naval warfare plant capped several years of attrition in the area's once-thriving defense sector.
To spur the growth of high technology in Baltimore, the GBC has put a heavy emphasis on developing a "life sciences" and biotechnology industrial base -- including such fields as medical research, pharmaceuticals, marine science and environmental technologies.
The emphasis can be seen in the Technology Month program, which is heavily weighted toward life sciences and biotechnology events. Besides a few showy demonstrations, relatively little attention is being given such high-tech areas as telecommunications, manufacturing technologies or computing.
Like the GBC as a whole, Mr. Weiss is bullish on biotech as a potential job creator. Look at the pharmaceutical industry in New Jersey, he said. "Biotechnology has all the potential to grow just as big if not eclipse the pharmaceutical industry," he said.
Mr. Conte said the GBC is on the right track.
"We're a health and health research town . . . . We're not a computer town," he said, noting that five of the region's top eight service sector employers are hospitals. "It makes sense for us to play this up."
But Charles Heller, director of the Michael Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland, said the GBC is stressing life sciences at the expense of other high-tech industries.
He said that at Dingman he sees three times as many start-up companies in the telecommunications and information services field as in biotech and that they have a better record of survival.
"The activity is here, but the stress on the life sciences gives the perception that telecommunications and computer-related companies don't exist here," he said.
Charles W. McMillion, president of the MBG business information group in Washington, agreed. He said Baltimore has indulged in futuristic visions of becoming a life sciences powerhouse and not enough on creating jobs in the near term.
"The focus is always on the sexy new products," he said, "but the real payoff is in process technologies," which apply advanced methods to manufacturing.
While Mr. McMillion and Mr. Conte differ on GBC strategy, they agree that the Columbus Center, the marine biotechnology research center that is due to open at the Inner Harbor in early 1995, will be critical to the region's high-tech efforts.
"It will be a very prominent symbol of either success or lack of success," said Mr. McMillion. "If the Christopher Columbus Center is not successful, it would obviously be a large black mark for the city."
Mr. Conte doesn't think that's likely. He thinks Baltimore has a hit on its hands that will go a long way toward changing outside perceptions of the city.
L "It's going to be a Camden Yards of biotechnology," he said.
That would certainly be good news for Mr. Weiss.
"I'd like to see more success stories," said the GBC technology chief. "I'd like to see a home run or two."
GBC TECH MONTH
* 4th Annual Technology Dinner, sponsored by GBC Technology Council. Reception at 5:30 p.m. in Hyatt Regency. Cost is $75 for members, $85 for nonmembers. Call Sharon Cooper at 727-2820.
* High Technology Entrepreneur's Roundtable sponsored by UMBC. Starts at 6 p.m. on UMBC campus, 5401 Wilkens Ave. Cost is $45. Call Carol Harriger at 455-2336.
* Recent Advances in Computational Biology, free symposium sponsored by UM School of Pharmacy and Scios Nova at 9 a.m. UMAB School of Pharmacy, Lombard Street. Call Lisa Walker at 522-9584 for information.
* Columbus Center Day, a daylong update on the new marine research/training center. Call Cheryl Hudgins at 547-8727.
* Technology Incubator Trade Show opens at 4 p.m. in the Baltimore Museum of Industry, Key Highway. Call Ann Lansinger at 455-1220 for information.
* Sensory Engineering, sponsored by Johns Hopkins, 9:30 a.m., Baltimore Marriott, Pratt and Eutaw streets. Call Ted Poehler 516-8765.
* Report on Biotechnology from Ernst & Young, noon, Baltimore Marriott, Pratt and Eutaw streets. Cost is $40. Call Betty Pilcher at 783-3850 for reservations.
* Technology, Education & Business, 8 a.m. discussion sponsored by Howard County Technology Council. Call Lee Rees at 730-4111 for program, cost and location details as they become available.
* Small Business Research Workshop, 8 a.m., Havre de Grace Decoy Museum. Co-sponsored by the Northeastern Maryland Technology Council. Call Nick Biasotto at (410) 392-3366, Ext. 604 for more information or reservations.
* University Center Tours begin at 9 a.m. at Lexington and Green streets. Call Neil McCabe at 706-4384 for more information.
* Venture Capital Forum, 5:30 p.m., Semmes, Bowen & Semmes, 250 W. Pratt St. Cost is $20. Call Brenda Strosnider at 539-5040 for reservations.
* BioCenter Briefing sponsored by the Maryland Bioprocessing Center, 3 p.m., Johns Hopkins Bayview Campus. Call Patrice Cromwell at 550-2271 for more information or reservations.
* Biopharmaceutical Development & Manufacturing, 1:30 p.m. seminar for small biotech companies, at Semmes, Bowen & Semmes. Cost is $45. Call Carolyn Harriger at 455-2336 for reservations.
* Environmental Liability will be discussed at Semmes, Bowen & Semmes. Call Jeanie Branch at 539-5040 for details.
* Life Science Achievement Awards will be presented at a luncheon. Call Rosemary Fetter at 706-8035 for location and program.